Arnold Goetzke has a simple idea. And if you pause long enough to talk to him, he'll tell you about it. The idea is this: an extension cord you can control from your phone. Simple as that. Maybe you're sitting in your chair and you want to impress your girlfriend: out comes your phone and on comes the mood lighting. Or you've got it hooked up to your Christmas tree and you let your kids press the button that makes it all light up.
But it's not just expensive smartphones. It's any phone. Universal. All you need is Bluetooth. There are apps available for iOS, Android, Windows Phone, and BlackBerry. But even if you don't have one of those, the system's so simple – it's just a sound file, and you can download that from the website. It's just a toggle, on/off. We call it "The World's Simplest APP."
So the whole thing's called the Smart Cord™. It's patent-pending. It'll be available in February for $39.95.
Sure, there's an outdoor version in the works, in case you want to hook it up to a fountain or an outdoor Christmas tree. Yeah, a dimmer – that's a cool idea, too. We're working on that, along with a Smart Switch™ that'll bring the same functionality to a wall switch.
What's the range? Oh, the standard Bluetooth, so about 30 feet.
Why not use Wi-Fi? Well...
This year's Consumer Electronics Show, the largest ever, featured 3,100 exhibitors spread over 1.861 million square feet of exhibit space, in a disorienting circus of cutting-edge gadgetry, all of it seemingly whirring or flashing, leaping forward to get your attention. To get some sense of the bewildering technological chaos, imagine the Singularity didn't usher in a transformative new age of mankind, but downed one too many Jack and Cokes before throwing up all over itself. Much like its host city, Las Vegas, CES often seems intentionally befuddling. Exhibit halls stretch over the horizon, scrambling your sense of direction. Strangers appear out of nowhere, thrusting their business cards at you with a fervor rivaling that of Strip workers dispensing escort-service pamphlets. A Langolier-like, low-intensity din hums through everything: the sound of thousands of people making their plodding, foot-weary way through the labyrinth.
To cut through the noise, both visual and aural, big names like Sony, RIM, and Verizon have custom-built islands of opulence. The grazing attendees (all 153,000 of them) understandably gravitate toward recognizable brands (comforting signs), or toward what looks big and new, or just somehow unique. You can see why spokesmodels and celebrities become useful weapons: by day three or so, the CES-goer's brain has secreted a protective glaze impenetrably to all but the most outre stimuli. A splashy booth at the show is one way of getting attention, and attention attracts more attention. A splashy booth at CES also means you have money to burn.
But most of the booths are not flashy. Most of them are small, ten-by-ten, with no greater luxury than a cubicle that might house a young middle-manager. White-on-black placards overhead bear the company names – names like Plustek and Mohzy and Smart Fortune and UCCTW and Hitbox and iMicroData and Unesky Electronics and Noitavonne. There are over 1,300 of these booths, each rented by a small company you'd probably never recognize. The Consumer Electronics Association, which produces every CES, claims 85 percent of its membership is small businesses, and they show up in force.
And among them – in South Hall 3, among the "Perimeter Linear Booths," in a nondescript space designated #35352 – a placard reads "Zmote." Beneath it stands Arnold Goetzke, the man with a simple plan and a simple product: a short, white cord with an attached Bluetooth module. He's here at his first CES, all the way from Michigan, a one-man shop representing the Rust Belt.
He has a simple idea, and he's honing his pitch.
This is his story.
Day 0: CES Prepares
The afternoon before the show officially opens, the floor is littered with the detritus of unpacking: stacks of wooden pallets and shipping crates, clumps of tape and balled-up plastic wrap, styrofoam peanuts squashed to neat, flat ribbons. A yellow caution sign offers tips for preventing back injuries, concluding with the firm reminder, "Stop. Think. Safety." The industrial-gray concrete floor is criss-crossed by black forklift tracks; the revving engines and backing-up beeps let you know they're still at work. Twenty yards from the Zmote booth, Chinese telecom maker Huawei has erected towering fronds of white plastic; lit from the inside, they give off a diffuse, pulsating glow as they shift through a spectrum fo colors. (The rumor on the floor is that this garden of earthly delights cost $1.5 million to produce.) A pair of Ecko Unlimited mannequins stand naked, reaching out to caress each other. A man with a headset mic paces the SD Card Association stage, sharpening his spiel for an audience of no one. Over it all the sound of building – hammers pounding, power drills whirring, men shouting – mingles with loud, not-very-good techno music.
Goetzke has a simple booth, not much different from the provided default. Beige walls with black shelving, on which sit his demonstration appliances, including a lantern with a multi-colored bulb and a small plastic aquarium. ("I'm the only one I saw in the bathroom trying to fill up a trash can with water so I can fill the light-up fish tank," he says.) A solid-looking, waist-high fountain sits on the floor beneath the aquarium, and next to it a poster hangs on the wall, introducing the Smart Cord with the slogan "Turning On Life." A small round table occupies to the back-left corner; one beige chair matches the walls, while the other is dull gray plastic.
With his minimal setup completed, Goetzke explains how he got here. The short answer is,"I've got this product; I think it's alright. But I don't have an email address to tell everyone about it. So my sister said, 'There's a consumer electronics show in Vegas.'" He registered in December (too late to be included in much of the printed material), paid his fee, and began planning.
The longer version goes something like this: Arnold Goetzke graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1992. An illness in his ex-wife's family caused them to move to Ann Arbor, within the orbit of the Big Three automakers. He'd liked cars before but was never in love with them, so when he took a contracting job with Chrysler in 1994, it was just that: a job. But he found he liked the work and, maybe more importantly, he liked the sense of community. He liked being able to look suppliers in the eye, to shake hands with them when he closed a deal. He got a Master's degree in mechanical engineering; signed himself up for the long haul.
"IT WAS JUST A GLORIOUS JOB. I NEVER THOUGHT ANYTHING WOULD CHANGE."
He began to move up the ranks. By 1998, he moved to Delaware to supervise engineering of the Dodge Durango, one of the company's most popular vehicles. Those were still the flush days, with Chrysler flying him between Ann Arbor and Delaware on a company jet. He was living a dream, doing the most elemental kind of mechanical engineering, helping build cars from the ground up. His hands were among the first to touch the clay when it came time to shape a new Durango. "It was just a glorious job," he says, "I never thought anything would change."
But change did come. That same year, Chrysler "merged" with Daimler-Benz AG, the German automaker. The supposed "merger of equals" proved controversial, with shareholders arguing it really amounted to a Daimler takeover. (Lawsuits followed, taking years to make their way through the courts.) Under the new regime, according to Goetzke, the company's culture shifted. An ethos of cost cutting took over, at least when it came to non-German suppliers. He was told to save money however he could, which often meant replacing local suppliers with cheaper competitors – often Asian. "It was still a fun job," he says, at least as far as designing new products. But the enforced frugality got to him. He started to see the decline of American manufacturing, and he realized he was not part of the solution, but part of the problem.
In 2006, after more than a decade with the company, he left Chrysler. Over the next year he wrote a book about his experience, called Eating The Hand That Feeds US — Manufacturing Our Demise. He self-published it, hoping to provoke the people he saw as standing watch while the automakers cost-cut their way to irrelevance. There's a train coming, he'd warn them, and America's standing on the tracks.
Alongside the book he tried a more flamboyant gesture. He had a barge docked in the Detroit River, in front of General Motors' newly renovated headquarters. He loaded it with cars, seven each from foreign and domestic manufacturers. The plan was to have the domestic cars push the foreign-made vehicles into the river, to illustrate a point about job losses and unfair competition. On the eve of the big day, the US Coast Guard, he says, revoked his permit. "Total waste," he says today, though at least one auto-industry publication briefly covered the non-event.
After leaving Chrysler, Goetzke felt a little adrift. He believes manufacturing is the only sector that adds real value to an economy (and can cite US Department of Labor statistics supporting his case). Everything else is just shuffling money around, moving it from one hand to the other. He didn't want to be a part of that. He wanted to add value. So for a while, about a year, he ran a dye sublimation business, printing digital images on fabric. But it was always other people's pictures, he says, and they could get very particular about how their beloved photos got printed. It got tiring, dealing with all that. It was "one of those ideas where the coolness fades away."
His sister, meanwhile, had a business selling mood lights to Lowe's. He started thinking about how he could do something similar, applying his own skills and knowledge. He turned his garage into a testing lab and began working on what would become the Smart Cord. Pretty soon he had a prototype. He applied for patents and got FCC approval. Then it came time to get the word out. From his time in the auto industry, he believed in persuading retailers first, and let them get it in front of customers. "The goal is to have just one retailer say, 'Let's put it in a store.' That's the power of retail."
The power of retail can rejuvenate American manufacturing, Arnold Goetzke believes. He's based in Ypsilanti, Michigan – the company website helpfully offers a pronunciation guide: "Ip Sill Anty" – far from Silicon Valley or any other consumer electronics Mecca, in the heart of Rust Belt America. It's important to him, this connection to Detroit, to a past when Americans didn't just buy things, but built them, too. He wants to create something with his own two hands and see it succeed in the world. "I'm trying to do a better job this time," he says, "doing my part for the economy. My wild dream of wild dreams is to add value, to say that I've added a little value to Ypsilanti. I know it's a simple cord. Even if the cord itself isn't a ten million a year seller, someone who's an invalid – it's a fun way to turn their fan on, or their light off."
Of course, that might not be enough."I could come away from the CES show – I could walk away with nothing."
But then again: "If nothing else," he says, "I got a new garage."
IF NOTHING ELSE, I GOT A NEW GARAGE.
Day 1: It Begins
The detritus has all gone. Everything's swept clean, with carpeting laid over the forklift tracks. It's happened overnight, out of sight. There's a particular breed of maintenance, an ongoing vigilance you find in places where the bars never close and the slot machines never sleep. Where there are no spare moments in which to put things in order, this truism bubbles to the surface: things must always be in order, and things are forever falling apart. This battle against entropy is the underlying, primal process of Las Vegas, a city conjured out of the desert with seductive dreams and easy cash.
Goetzke's at his booth in jeans and sneakers; his dark blue, tucked-in T-shirt reads "Ask me about Zmote" on the front, "...and our Smart Cord™" on the back. He'll wear this outfit for the show's duration. He hasn't set his watch to local time, meaning there's a short moment of arithmetic whenever he needs to make an appointment. He's tall, tanned and rangy, with that open Midwestern gregariousness that makes for good salesmanship when tempered by a sense of strategic candor. He's still working on his approaches, trying to read the intentions of everyone who passes. Are they interested? Waiting for him to speak? Avoiding eye contact? Will they double back for a second look? He has a stack of Vistaprinted business cards waiting, face down. An archaic mag stripe reader with a full register tape sits on the table, ready to capture the contact info stored on cards issued to every CES attendee. First, though, he has to get someone to hand over a card.
Around noon, two hours into the first day, a man approaches the booth. He introduces himself and points to the screen of his laptop. His company, he explains, is Zeemote. It makes Bluetooth gaming controllers for mobile devices, tablets and the like. There's a PDF open on the screen, the screen this man is pointing at, and it has a lawyer's letterhead. The subject line reads "Re: Cease and Desist Copyright Infringement."
"Dear Sir or Madam," it continues, explaining that "Zeemote Technology Inc., organized under the laws of Taiwan ... is the owner of the ZEEMOTE trademark registered with the US Patent & Trademark Office. These registrations (numbered 3589224 and 3942073) cover "computer software and hardware for customizing, controlling, and delivery of content to wireless and mobile devices, namely, cell phones, personal digital assistants, mobile gaming devices, and laptops." It goes on to assert that "The name of your company, 'Zmote', is without question confusingly similar to the ZEEMOTE mark, and the products you are selling under this name fall squarely within the goods and services descriptions of the above-referenced registrations."
The letter ends amiably enough, but with the clear implication that if the name "Zmote" continues to appear anywhere in the conceptual vicinity of Bluetooth control devices, swift and righteous legal action will unfortunately, regretfully, become a sad inevitability. Goetzke throws up his hands as he tells the story. He did the trademark and patent search, didn't find anything like this. Who would name a company "Zeemote"? He could be enraged or deflated, but he just shakes his head, one side of his mouth pulling up into a rueful smile as he points to the table. There lies a small joystick controller, a matte-black Zeemote left by the departing representative.
In other news: the Department of Commerce came by and encouraged him to increase the percentage of his product that's locally sourced. The Smart Cord, like many consumer electronics, is produced overseas. Goetzke provides the designs. "The hardware and tech is ours," he says, "The FCC testing is ours; we paid for it." He'd like to make his products locally, he says: "That's why I put it in Ypsilanti, because it has a bunch of empowerment zones" for business development. The area has a surplus of unused manufacturing capacity, much of it abandoned by the Detroit automakers. "If GE buys it, I'll tell them, 'Hey, you have to build a factory here.' That's kind of a wild, crazy dream at this point."
He compares CES to the trade shows he used to attend. "I was expecting it to be mostly consumers, but it seems to be an equal mix of consumers, trade, and press. It's not like the auto shows, where it's mostly consumers who look under the hood and say: 'Oh, that's sweet.'" Instead, he often can't read the intentions of people who pass by. They've all been issued color-coded badges marking them buyers, exhibitors, or press. But some hide their badges, or wear them backward around to conceal corporate affiliations. "It's funny," he says, "a lot of people don't want to tell you what they do. Like that guy, what do you think he does? He could have worked for Sony for all I know."
He's a small player here, no Chrysler or GM, and he knows it. "It's like going to the Chicago Auto Show as the new antenna supplier. I find everyone's pretty protective here as far as meeting new vendors." After one pleasant discussion with a potential client, he moved to take a card, only to hear, "I don't know if that's the card for you."
He does better with the people ambling by. "Most people, when I show them the product," he says, "they're impressed. A lot of people come by and say 'good show,' 'nice booth.'" Then there are the engineers who want to redesign his product as he's explaining it to them. Still, he says, "You talk to Chinese engineers and you're proud to be able to show them that Americans can still design something."
Summing up his first day, he says, "It's been a thumbs-up, except for that little thing," looking across the booth to the table where the Zeemote sits. "I ought to frame it."
welt·schmerz (noun): A feeling of melancholy and world-weariness
Day 2: Weltschmerz
Arnold Goetzke awakes at 6 AM in the morning to the smell of human waste. A sewage line has broken in his hotel, though no authority figures will admit this is the case. "That was on the first floor and I was on the seventh," he says. "You couldn't see it, but you knew it was there somewhere."
The host of What's New, Dr. Frank? (a consumer electronics guide appearing online and on local morning news broadcasts) visits the Zmote booth. He takes a prototype Smart Cord with him: "'I'm on TV tonight and tomorrow, but I don't know if this is Mickey Mouse – if it really works,' he said. So I gave him one to try," Goetzke says. Dr. Frank passes by later, but with no mention of having done a review. Yet.
Goetzke talks about the others who have stopped to talk: a crew of high schoolers who wanted a discount (he told them for their opinions he'd give them a free Smart Cord); a pair of Honeywell employees who look more interested in the mood lighting than the Bluetooth extension cord; and a guy who claimed to work for Wal-Mart – but not in the area that'd be buying the Smart Cord. He knew a guy, though, he said, and would pass on the info.
Wal-Mart would be the ideal fit for Goetzke. He's had interest from small, regional retailers, but would rather have one big contract than a bunch of small ones. A gentleman from Turkey introduced himself and talked all about the country's smart-home market. Nothing much came of it, but Goetzke doesn't see it as wasted time. "I'd rather practice my pitch on him," he says, "so when the Smart Home guy from GE comes over, I'm ready."
"The best thing," he says, "has been everyone who's stopped has said, 'Oh, that's new,' or 'I haven't seen that before.' So that'll keep me motivated." It also helped when a trio of Intel engineers (who didn't hide their badges) stopped to compliment him. "It's cool to have them look at it and say, 'That's pretty neat' – coming from people who deal with 'neat' all the time."
As the day winds down and people move toward the exits, he sneaks a look at his email. "I just got a letter from the lawyer for Zeemote: 'Thanks for treating this seriously,'" he says, rolling his eyes. "Oh my gosh."
So many people yearning for a stapler...
Day 3: The Home Stretch
"I didn't wake up to the odor today," Goetzke says. But the night before, he did stop in the hotel bar for a drink, managing to leave his credit card behind. He only realized it the next day when he tried to pay for coffee. The hotel has proven surprisingly unhelpful in remedying the situation, leaving Goetzke to have money wired to him. He jokes that if he doesn't have enough cash when he gets home, he'll be walking from the Detroit airport. While he was gone, his sister covered the booth. She even got interviewed.
He begins the litany of little things that have gone wrong. The poster printed in landscape, mismatched to a portrait-oriented plastic stand. The register tape that ran out. Running out of info sheets and having to print more. There's the Stapler Issue: people who want to attach his business card to the info sheet. "No, I don't have a stapler, sorry," he has to say, "I'll bring one tomorrow for you." This has happened surprisingly often, to the point of becoming a comic refrain. So many people yearning for a stapler.
He's even got people reviewing his apps, despite their lack of an actual, physical Smart Cord. "'One star, doesn't work.' Well how do you know it doesn't work? I haven't sold product one yet," he says. Other people, strangely confrontational, ask him why anyone would want a remote-controlled extension cord. He's not going to debate the usefulness of a remote.
Oh, and there's the Cease & Desist letter. He sometimes needs a nudge to remember that.
But his demonstrations worked. The product worked and, Dr. Frank's initial skepticism notwithstanding, it made an impression. "I was afraid there'd be too much interference in here," he says. "I'd just be talking with nothing happening. Because people love that."
"I was ready for the show to be over yesterday, almost," he says, "I accomplished what I wanted to accomplish. I feel like I'm almost overcommitting if I stay here."
Day 4: A conclusion, of sorts
The shortened exhibit day passes quickly for Arnold Goetzke. People have already begun to leave, making their journeys back to places unknown. He's got a red-eye flight out of Vegas, putting him back to the Detroit Metro Airport in the still, dark pre-dawn hours of Saturday morning. From there he'll drive home and, if he's lucky, be rested enough to help coach the first practice of his son's winter baseball team. He's not sure he'll make it, though; it's a late flight and, like many of the people here, he feels like he's been in Vegas a long time. "I told one of the other dads it was 50/50 whether I'd be there," he says. "So he's ready. I don't want to be there if I'm not a value-add."
Aftermath: Was It All Worth It?
He didn't make the practice, he writes later. "I didn't want to show up tired and looking hung over for a bunch of 13 year-olds, having them think I just got back from a major road trip to Vegas, gambling the team money away. I didn't realize what a pain the red-eye flight was." The practice went on without him.
He has a new website. Zmote.com now opens with a letter from Arnold Goetzke, reading in part, "In order to avoid confusion, we have decided to move forward with ZSmart as the name of the company (after verifying there is no ZeeSmart...)." Clicking through takes you to ZSmartCompany.com, where Ypsilanti, Michigan is still translated phonetically: Ip Sill Anty.
Two weeks after the show ended, he received an offer from a California company to buy the Smart Cord and all related patents. "Not sure what will happen," he writes, "but I guess it is the cap to what was a good show."
And maybe, just maybe, he'll be back next year.