Walk along any lighting trade show floor, and you're bound to see it: an inflatable porcine floating among the rafters. It's the official mascot of Flying Pig Systems, the manufacturer of moving light consoles, a mainstay of the industry for almost 10 years. Founded by Nils Thorjussen, Tom Thorne, and Nick Archdale, the company's Wholehog line of consoles are the industry standard. After a recent merger with High End Systems, Thorjussen took on the role of marketing director for both companies, and made the move to Austin, while his co-founders stayed in London. David Johnson recently sat down with Thorjussen during Lightfair in New York.
David Johnson: I don't really know your history before Flying Pig.
Nils Thorjussen: I went to the University of Texas, funnily enough, in Austin. I've sort of come full circle. After college, I worked in Washington, DC, and New York doing management consulting for two years, and then went to Stanford for graduate school in business to get my MBA, with the intention of doing something entrepreneurial afterwards.
At Stanford I met Tom Thorne. As graduation approached in 1991, we sat there figuring out what to do. We asked ourselves, `What do we know something about?' Tom was familiar with lighting; at Stanford he actually worked on all of the student productions, and spent a lot of time lighting shows and theatrical pieces. So we thought we would look into lighting. We did some preliminary research, and realized that the market was big enough to support us as a company.
Tom knew Nick Archdale, who is the third Flying Pig partner, from London. Nick had been using moving-mirror lights in non-disco applications, corporate events, and small bands. He recognized the need for a controller for these moving-mirror lights, because in greater and greater numbers, they were making their way out of the disco and on to other applications.
We essentially set out to build an Artisan console for moving-mirror lights, recognizing that the Artisan was probably the best, or at least the most widely used, moving light console at the time. And that there really wasn't anything equivalent for people using moving-mirror fixtures.
We moved to London in September 91, and that is when we started the company. We spent our first year in development, and then the following summer of 92, did our first show at PLASA. We won Product of the Year, which helped us a lot and gave us a lot of credibility. But it didn't get us sales. We had pretty much bootstrapped the company. We spent our last dime at PLASA in 92, and we had no orders. It took a while for orders to come in, so for a couple of months, we were pretty destitute.
DJ: Who came up with the name Flying Pig? It's one of the more iconic names in the industry.
Thorjussen: We had been trying to come up with a good name for several weeks, during the summer after school when we were crossing the US and visiting all the lighting companies and starting the initial design work on our product. We had been wracking our brains and coming up with really uninspiring, trite, unmemorable, easily forgotten names. Nothing was clicking at all. Tom and Nick kept on making jokes about how whenever the console did something really powerful and exciting, that this camel would explode off the console and an inflatable pig would come flying out. In England they say, `Pigs might fly' when something is completely ludicrous and unlikely.
They kept on making this joke over and over and over again during our development discussions. One day I just popped out, `Why don't we call the company Flying Pig?' It was a total joke, but at that moment, Nick latched on to the term. `That's it! We've got to call the company Flying Pig! And the console has to be the Wholehog!' Eureka, there it was, and I was horrified, needless to say.
DJ: How are you going to market that?
Thorjussen: Yeah, how are we going to market this, people won't take it seriously, and so on. We sat on it for a couple of months and then decided to run with it, figuring we couldn't come up with a better name, and people will at least remember it if nothing else. And it did absolutely speak to what we were trying to do; we were trying to build a product that did unlikely things.
DJ: Do you remember your first order?
Thorjussen: The first order was from Meteor Lights, which bought a couple of consoles. And then we got the Sting tour, and then we got the Grateful Dead tour. And then we got Peter Gabriel. And then it started cascading from there.
Eventually we realized that the console we had built was predominantly a touring console, and we wanted to make it broader in its appeal. So about a year after we launched the original Wholehog, we went back into development to produce Wholehog 2. We targeted that console to be in the middle of what we perceived to be a coming intersection in the lighting world, where there was increasing use of moving lights in the theatrical community. Touring productions were becoming more theatrical in nature, more refined, using more fixtures, and also more subtle and specific about how they used them. We saw designers and operators increasingly crossing over and not just doing theatrical work, or not just doing touring work. We started development on Wholehog 2 in 93. It was finally released to the world in the summer of 95. People liked it, but in this industry, it takes a while for products to get noticed. We had a lot of latent demand. But it took a couple of years before it really started cementing itself as the standard for moving light control.
DJ: Flying Pig merged with High End last year. How long a process was that?
Thorjussen: It took a long time. They had approached us at one point, before they settled the lawsuit with Vari-Lite. We told them we weren't terribly interested because we didn't want to get involved with that. Once they were able to settle the lawsuit, we were able to have a meaningful discussion. But it still took half a year from when the serious talks began to when we actually closed the deal.
DJ: It seemed like a logical match on paper.
Thorjussen: Yes, and it's worked out very well. To be honest, I don't think we have yet seen any of the real benefits that will come from that. But over time, as we develop products working together, the benefits will be pretty significant and very exciting to our users, and make their lives a lot easier.
DJ: What were the main things you wanted to accomplish when you first took this job?
Thorjussen: One of the first things I made happen was the overhaul of our website. The old site was very dated.
DJ: That happens very quickly.
Thorjussen: Indeed it does. Our website had been designed some years ago and really hadn't evolved. It was just inefficient in terms of how to access information, different layers and things like that. So we overhauled it, and that was a good thing. And then just updating some of the marketing materials, getting out a product catalogue, which had been languishing in the marketing department for a while, things like that.
DJ: You obviously have a very fond affection for Flying Pig, but you have to oversee a much larger group of products now. Do you still feel very protective of the company you helped co-found?
Thorjussen: I am very protective of Flying Pig, and I guard it pretty viciously from anything that is detrimental to us. We want to keep it independent of High End as much as possible, because it serves people who use fixtures from all kinds of different manufacturers.
DJ: What are some of the other changes at High End since you've come onboard?
Thorjussen: There have been some staffing changes, a few new hires, including your lovely Cathy McHugh [former ED concert editor]. And a couple of other people who are less visible to the outside world, but who are really helpful in terms of getting things done. A lot of the changes have been internal and not so visible to the outside world. But the results will become more visible over time as the fruits of these changes occur.
DJ: What are some of the other goals you've set for the company?
Thorjussen: We want to be much better at getting information out to our customers and dealers, and there are a lot of different ways to do that. We are gearing up to be more proactive in terms of distribution, whether it is news items or more technical information. We'll be talking more to people who are actually out in the field using our equipment.
DJ: The lighting industry, until very recently, has been slow to recognize the importance of marketing.
Thorjussen: This industry - and it is an industry - is maturing. That is a normal part of that process. Entertainment lighting has been a cottage industry to a great extent until recently, especially on the touring side, which is only 30 years old or so. You have some established companies that have been around for quite some time, but most of the large companies today within entertainment lighting weren't in existence 20 or 30 years ago. I think as the industry increases in size and sophistication that these things follow. And the more sophisticated marketing approaches are a part of that.
You will see the same things with product development. The products that are on offer are more complicated, and more technologically advanced, and require more money, and gumption, to develop today than 20 years ago. Hopefully, just because we see these changes in our industry, the down sides don't accompany it, such as bureaucracy and - I'm not sure what the right word is - corporate-ness? That's the very thing I've wanted to avoid, and I think the thing most people in this industry want to avoid. Let's face it, most people in our industry could probably make more money doing other things. But a lot of people are attracted to this industry because it's more fun than selling insurance.
DJ: What are some of the markets that currently hold promise for High End and Flying Pig?
Thorjussen: There is a lot of hope for the architectural market with people who are very strong currently in the entertainment market. I don't think anyone has really found it to be as successful as they had hoped, but there is this long-term promise. People are still adapting entertainment lighting products to that market. And I think over time, that seeing a building with just plain white lighting would be like going to the theatre today and watching a show with just white lighting, or seeing a concert in white lighting. I think people will come to expect more.
DJ: What has been the toughest part of coming aboard High End?
Thorjussen: Heat! (Laughs) That's an honest answer. Moving to Texas. I really like Austin, it's a great town, but it's so hot.