Stillwater Designs founder Steve Irby spoke with Oklahoma Baptist University students during a Business Forum Lecture April 1. The Paul Dickinson College of Business hosted the event, held in the Tulsa Royalties Auditorium in Bailey Business Center on the OBU campus in Shawnee.
Irby is president and founder of Stillwater Designs, maker of “Kicker” branded car audio, marine audio and portable lifestyle audio products. He fondly recalled how his business idea came through a set of circumstances and decisions, leading him ultimately to his life’s work. As a high school student, he was a classically trained piano player who started playing keyboard in a rock band with some friends. He needed a way to make his keyboard louder, as the drummer was drowning him out.
“I did some research, and went to my dad and told him I need an amplifier for my keyboard,” he said. It cost $300 at the time, but his father didn’t reject the idea. Instead, he said something that surprised his son. He asked him if it was something they could build. His father taught architecture and construction technology and built almost everything around their house, including the house itself, a camping trailer, tree houses, go carts, furniture and more.
So, a few days later, his dad brought home a book from the library that included a section on building loudspeakers. The two went to work and using an existing speaker and part of an old amplifier, they constructed the enclosure and created the enclosed amplifier he needed for his keyboard. That experience turned into a hobby, with Irby building speakers and amplifiers for his bandmates and other bands.
Several years later, burned out from studying sociology in graduate school and finding himself unable to persevere through his thesis, he realized something was missing in his life. “I went to the head of the department and told him I was dropping out. I told him that I didn’t think the answers were in science, but I thought the answers were in religion. I really didn’t know exactly what I meant by that, either.”
They had attended church together in the past, and his advisor encouraged Irby to speak with a youth leader from the church. Irby had known about God and grew up going to church, but when he met with this youth leader, he was confronted with his own eternity. “This guy said ‘you need to accept Jesus as your personal savior.’ I told him I couldn’t accept someone I don’t know. So, he told me I needed to get myself a Bible, read it, and find out who Jesus is.”
So, that’s exactly what Irby did. He got a Bible, starting reading the New Testament, and read the whole thing. Through that experience he came to a personal relationship with Jesus which has guided his life ever since.
Finding faith wasn’t Irby’s only pivotal experience during that period of time. “I found two books. I found the Bible and I also found a book at the OSU library called ‘Loudspeakers and Enclosures.’ I started reading it and thought ‘wow, this is what I’ve wanted to know.’” A fire was lit inside of him and he devoured the book. His new faith, coupled with this new knowledge, started Irby down the path of his life’s work.
“My quest had been not only a spiritual quest for the truth, but also to figure out what I was supposed to do with my life.” So, he told his roommate he wanted to start a speaker company, invited him to be a part of it, and their business was born.
The two invested in woodworking equipment and started building speaker enclosures out of the garage at their house. They sold them to bands and since Irby knew a lot of musicians, the business took off quickly.
A few years later, a friend from his band years called him. He had opened a music store in a small town in Oklahoma and saw a need. He saw that many of the men working in the oil fields had pickups and wanted quality sound from their stereos but didn’t have the room needed to install the proper speakers. Irby realized that he could fit speakers behind the seats and an idea was born.
In 1980, stemming from that perceived need, Irby developed the original “Kicker,” a full range enclosed speaker system designed to fit behind the seat in a standard cab pickup truck. This was a first-of-its-kind product innovation, which is why similar products of many brands came to be known generically as Kicker-boxes. This single innovative product launched a car audio brand with hundreds of models sold through a network of retail dealers in all 50 U.S. states and more than 60 countries on 6 continents.
While he has enjoyed tremendous success, Irby is always mindful that his business was first borne out of his passion. “The journey is your life, it's every day,” he said. “It's not about the size of your business, it's about doing something that you connect with and that you love to do.”
He also offered the students sound advice on what it means to be a Christian in the business world. “One thing that's really important in business or whatever you are doing is that you've just got to let God control things,” he said. “One of the challenges in the early days was whether we could operate a business on Christian principles. There are a lot of things that go on in business and people said ‘well, this is just the way we do things.’ Then, I would read in the Bible and saw they were wrong and that was not the way we should do things.”
Irby made a commitment to the Lord to run his business according to God’s word to the best of his ability. “If you make that commitment, he'll take care of the rest.”