Scrappy local company finds niche in TV antennas

Staff WriterMay 9, 2011 

  • Before buying any digital TV antenna, check whether your home is a good candidate for receiving free signals. Interference factors include tall trees or buildings, and metal supports inside walls.

    A website set up by the Consumer Electronics Association and the National Association of Broadcasters, www.antennaweb.org, has a short questionnaire to help determine whether you'll get a signal and what channels you can expect to receive.

    The Federal Communications Commission website, www.dtv.gov, has reception maps, troubleshooting guides and more. You also can call the FCC at 888-225-5322.

    Mohu's website, www.gomohu .com , has instructional videos for its Leaf antenna and other information.

    One man's test

    Find out how the Mohu Leaf worked for our reporter. Page 2D

    Mohu's name

    The company's founders tossed around "many, many" possible names before settling on Mohu.

    It doesn't stand for anything, but it's short, easy to remember and purposely similar to other big names that are changing TV viewing habits, said CEO Mark Buff.Roku makes a box that allows viewers to stream online video to a TV. And Hulu is the online video website.

  • Once I overcame my own technical limitations, the Mohu Leaf worked as advertised.

    I opened the flat box and plugged the cord into an older (really old) TV in the upstairs office in our Clayton home. No signal. So I tried a slightly younger TV in our downstairs bedroom. Still nothing.

    Slightly frustrated, I went online and watched two videos Mohu posted showing how to install and use the antenna. One explained for luddites like me that TVs made before 2004 typically don't have the digital tuners required to get HD signals. You can buy one for about $40, but I didn't want to start messing with more equipment.

    That left the non-antiquated TV in our main room. After plugging in the cord and using tape to hang the Leaf on the wall temporarily, I switched the input signal on the TV from "Cable" to "Air" and scanned for channels. About 20 popped up, including a sub channel from WRAL showing movies, an NBC17 weather channel, a country music station, ION, Qubo and more. Honestly, not bad variety.

    The signal was crystal clear on most channels, although there were a few times when the picture would freeze for a split second or pixilate. Mohu recommends moving the antenna a few inches up or to the side to find the best reception. Affixing it to a window is another way to get the best signal, but then you have this black thing blocking the view. The company suggests hiding it behind a framed picture, but you would still see a wire running to the TV.

    Even if we upgraded to 21st century TVs or added digital tuners, my family isn't quite ready to cut the cable cord. My kids aren't TV junkies, but enjoy Disney and other cable channels. I'm a huge hoops fan. I could probably survive summer without ESPN, but basketball season would be hard. My wife likes Food Network and E!.

    Another problem: We're spoiled by the DVR, which allows us to record shows and skip commercials. That's not happening with the Leaf.

    Still, I could see adapting to eliminate our huge Time Warner Cable bill. If we invested a bit more to add other hardware, such as a Roku or Apple box that streams online video to the TV, it would help. If we kept Time Warner's Internet service, that would give us access to ESPN3.com, which streams games that aren't on its regular TV channels anyway.

    Besides, maybe fewer channels would be better - more books and family bonding.

    Staff writer Alan M. Wolf

Every entrepreneur dreams of building a better something - think mousetrap, app or gee-whiz gadget.

One local team set its sights on antennas.

The team's efforts, which started as research at N.C. State University, have been aimed at designing new antennas for the military. That's still a top goal, but in March they began selling an indoor antenna that receives free over-the-air, high-definition digital TV signals.

The $44 Mohu Leaf debuted way down (No. 600+) onAmazon.com's ranking of "HDTV antennas," but recently reached No. 1. Mohu's employees, working out of cluttered offices in a North Raleigh strip mall, are assembling and shipping up to 80 a day. Last week, they had sold more than 2,400.

"We're not calling it a home run yet, but this is a ticket to the game," said Mark Buff, co-founder and CEO of Mohu and its sister company GreenWave Scientific. "This is the first sign of moving beyond paying the bills and looking at explosive growth."

Though the Triangle isn't Silicon Valley with its fabled garage startups, it is home to a wide range of research that evolves into promising young companies.

Many start and stumble. A few flourish.

The three partners behindMohu and GreenWave hope to become a success story.

The Mohu Leaf was designed by chief technology officer Michael Barts, a Virginia Tech PhD in electrical engineering and ham-radio enthusiast. The goal was to develop a consumer-friendly antenna that would pass the "wife test" in terms of its looks, and give budget-conscious viewers a better choice for cutting off cable or satellite TV.

"It's going back to the days of getting signals over the air," Barts said.

As part of the design process, Mohu's partners went shopping. They bought about a dozen antennas from bigger rivals such as RCA and Terk, and then threw them all into a large cardboard box. Their verdict: "Most existing antennas are so inferior," Barts said.

Buff notes that most were more expensive, but some competitors have cut their prices on Amazon since Mohu began selling its Leaf for $44.

The Leaf is a laminated black, paper-thin rectangle with a cord coming off the bottom. It hangs on a wall or window. One California blogger who helped build buzz for the Leaf with a positive plug wrote that when he opened the box, it was "the least breathtaking piece of electronics I have ever come across."

Still, that review, and others on Amazon, have helped boost sales.

In today's economy, more consumers are eager for options that allow them to avoid the soaring cost of cable TV, including Internet streaming services, said Megan Pollock, a spokeswoman for the Consumer Electronics Association.

And an increasing number are learning the value of a good antenna that can receive free digital signals, she added. TV broadcasters are adding more choices as the technology improves.

"The market potential is enormous," Pollock said. "This is a place where a young, exciting company could come in and take hold."

Pollock hasn't tried the Mohu Leaf, but said the key tests are whether it works, and whether it's simple to set up and use. That will distinguish it from rivals.

"Do you have to keep wiggling it around? The less you have to do, the more excited consumers will be about using it," Pollock said.

In this region, customers can receive about 20 channels so far. Mohu's biggest markets are in California and New York, where customers report getting 50 or more.

The company's return rate is about 1 percent, Buff said. Some customers are unhappy because factors that interfere with reception can pixilate the signal.

Director of operations Russ Winstead, the team's third partner, developed the Leaf's manufacturing process. That's about 10 steps: stamping thin metal sheets, applying adhesive, laminating, packaging and stacking the boxes just inside the front door for the post office to pick up.

Buff started antenna research for the military as he earned a doctorate in electrical engineering at N.C. State University. That work evolved into GreenWave, which he founded in 2006.

The company is testing three antennas for the Navy and military subcontractors. One partner, Shakespeare, is the South Carolina company known for its "whip" antennas on military jeeps and other vehicles.

GreenWave's antennas send and receive broadband signals, helping improve communications with massive vehicles and robots in the field. Some of the work is essentially electronic warfare, with jammers that block radio-controlled roadside bombs. One antenna is built into a huge mud flap.

That work still could reap big profits if one or more antennas succeed. But money from defense contracts is getting squeezed by tight government budgets.

That prompted Buff's team to get creative, taking their antenna skills and developing something they could sell directly to consumers.

"We saw an opportunity with huge demand for a better HDTV antenna, but also liked the idea of diversification," he said.

In December, the GreenWave partners incorporated Mohu and set to work on the Leaf.

The private companies employ about a dozen people but don't disclose financial results.

Mohu may hire a few more people if orders for the Leaf continue to increase. GreenWave will likely let partners handle production if it wins a big contract.

Since they're running small companies, the partners handle almost every aspect of the business, including creating a website, posting instructional videos on YouTube, designing packaging, answering customer calls and more.

Buff reached out to money-saving bloggers, including the one in California. Barts came up with the Leaf's tagline: "No cable. No dish. No bills."

"We love the chaos and every one has skin in the game," Buff said. To be clear: "We're all in it to make a profit. Otherwise, we could go work 8 to 5 for a big company."

alan.wolf@newsoberserver.com or 919-829-4572

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