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View from the Top: Larry O’Connor, Other World Computing

By Clive Young. Other World Computing’s founder/CEO Larry O’Connor talks about common sense, educating customers and founding his company 30 years ago at the age of 14.

Other World Computing’s origin story sounds like something out of a Disney TV movie instead of the founding of a top storage, connectivity, software and expansion solutions provider. In 1988, 14-year-old Larry O’Connor founded a company in the family barn with the goal of re-inking printer ribbons for the denizens of Woodstock, IL. A year later, he expanded into computer memory chips, and that’s when things took off.

“Memory prices had gone up for a brief period of time due to an earthquake in Taiwan,” he recalled at this year’s NAMM Show. “Prices came back down [overall], but in my marketplace they didn’t.” Compounding the problem for local computer users, the nearest repair shop was 45 minutes away. When the young entrepreneur needed to upgrade his machine, he had to be driven to the store, where he made a shocking discovery as he watched the upgrade take place. “This was something not only could I do, but anyone could do it—and in about five minutes!” he said. It didn’t take long to spot an opportunity. “I could effectively offer these memory kits for about a quarter of what they were being sold for, and I could show people how easy it was to install. That’s how we got started.”

The privately held company turned 30 last October, and in the intervening decades it has grown into a computer expansion solutions powerhouse with a widespread customer base. “Honestly, we didn’t even realize we had an audio-video following until five to seven years ago,” he said. “It’s a big company and we listen to our customers. First off, we’re our own customers. We build things the way we want them to work. We listen, we come to NAMM, we go to NAB, we go in the studio. We listen to the folks who are using the product for what their needs are. We’ve gotten to where we are because we build things to a good specification, we post what is inside—what the chipsets are and why things work the way they work.”

Related: Review: OWC USB-C Travel Dock, by Clive Young, Feb. 4, 2019

Listening to customers also revealed why those offerings—storage, docks, memory and other products—appeal to end users in specific industries, and the company keeps those needs in mind as it sweats the details: “We build things using common sense, because there’s a right way to build product, a right way to build solutions for performance and reliability,” said O’Connor. “Plug the wrong hard drive in and you can actually add a little bit of noise and feedback into your system. These are details that it doesn’t matter if you’re audio or video or a basic user—there’s a right way to build stuff. What we do is common sense; this really is true. It’s not common in a lot of the products out there.”

At the NAMM Show, the company’s focus was on presenting storage and connectivity solutions for music industry pros, drawing attention to its Envoy Pro EX SSDs, which sport a Thunderbolt 3 interface, transfer speeds up to 2,500 MB/s and capacities up to 2 TB. Elsewhere at the booth was OWC’s line of Mercury Elite Pro mini storage solutions, offered in a 2.5-inch Serial ATA (SATA) hard drive or SSD design, with eSATA and USB-C connection options, up to 540 MB/s transfer speeds and up to 4 TB storage capacity. For those with no need for extra storage on their computer, there was still gear of interest, such as a 14-port Thunderbolt 3 Dock aimed at Mac laptop users.

Also of interest: “Our ThunderBlade SSD, which goes up to 8 TB,” said O’Connor. “It’s overkill for audio, but when you get into video or audio/video, then you’re in the game. It’s literally the fastest Thunderbolt product on the planet. The number-one consumers of that product are DITs [digital imaging technicians], because they need to duplicate their data correctly. They need to get the dailies out, they need to duplicate the data even right after they get the card from the camera, and there’s nothing faster—you’re doing about 1 terabyte every 10 minutes between two ThunderBlades with 2.5 gigabytes a second of throughput.”

OWC outgrew the barn before the end of the 1980s, and these days it’s based in a 37,000-square-foot corporate headquarters designed to Platinum LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards. Doubling down on that green philosophy, in October 2009, OWC flipped the switch on a 194-foot-tall Vestas V39 500 kW wind turbine to take care of its power needs, making it reportedly the first technology manufacturer/distributor in the U.S. to be entirely wind-powered. The turbine generates roughly 1,250,000 kilowatt hours per year—essentially twice as much as the facility actually needs to operate. The OWC campus also sports the largest privately-held solar array in Illinois and recycles 94 percent of the solid waste generated on-site.

While the company may know a bit about selling expansion products, it’s been doing some expansion itself. In early January, prior to CES, it purchased competitor Akitio, which produces external computer storage products and accessories with an emphasis on Thunderbolt 3 technology. Akitio also develops software aimed at improving DIT workflow with capabilities such as simultaneous data duplication, screen shots and security checks. O’Connor noted in a statement at the time, “This acquisition gives us the opportunity to strengthen our core prosumer lineup and market reach with photography, video and music pros with some really exceptional new offerings. Our product lines and brands are quite complementary, with Akitio bringing a strong reputation in the Windows space and segments like performance gaming, AR/VR [and] high-end creative strengths to our base. I see tremendous opportunities ahead for our team and our customers.”

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While OWC may be broadening its presence, it is still largely centered around the idea of educating and empowering users to make the most of their existing systems by working on the computers themselves. Arguably, while it may be OWC’s bread and butter, it also falls in line with the company’s strident green efforts, as upgrading a system and prolonging its lifespan is ultimately better for the environment. And for those who would say they are too inept to root around inside their machine, O’Connor would beg to differ: “Everything is hard until you pull the curtain back. We’ve always done videos that show people how to do the installations. Not everything is user-installable, and we’ll say, ‘Hey, this is really complicated; you’ve got to know what you’re doing,’ but 95 percent of it takes less than 10 minutes. Maybe 4.5 percent of the stuff is longer than that but anyone can do it; you just have to be patient and follow the directions.”

Given that the pro audio and recording industries are built on the work of DIY tinkerers, OWC’s ethos is a good fit. As O’Connor noted, glancing around the NAMM Show floor, “Musicians and producers and the folks who do this are amazing. It’s unbelievable how technology-savvy these folks are, and if they’re not, they want to know, because to understand how things work is important—it supports the creative process.”

Other World Computing •