What’s the Signal Hound elevator speech?
By providing an unrivaled value in RF spectrum analyzers, Signal Hound is driving a revolution that is causing more and more companies to realize they can affordably expand their test capabilities. Signal Hound has been manufacturing and selling spectrum analyzers for eight years, and we are becoming a globally recognized brand in the test equipment market.
How was Signal Hound formed, and how did you select the name?
We started as Test Equipment Plus (TEP) in 1996, as an HP/Agilent used equipment dealer. In 2007, TEP moved away from selling used equipment and into repairing test equipment. Then, during that same year, TEP designed and built a color LCD retrofit kit for HP 8566B spectrum analyzers. We built another color LCD kit for the HP 8560-series spectrum analyzers and then decided to build our own USB spectrum analyzer.
Using USB made all kinds of sense because everyone owns a PC. Why not build an instrument without the processor, display, power supply, keyboard and heavy case and utilize a PC instead? Nobody was doing it with “spec-ans” (spectrum analyzers) at that point, so we gave it a go!
Signal Hound was born when we shipped our first SA44 in February 2010. We officially changed our company name from TEP to Signal Hound in 2014, when spectrum analyzer sales reached 90 percent of our total sales.
What products does Signal Hound offer, and how are they differentiated in a crowded test and measurement market?
Signal Hound started with RF spectrum analyzers, and they remain our top sellers. We include tracking generators as a support accessory to the spec-ans. We also offer the VSG25A vector signal generator and the PNCS-1, a 1 GHz low phase noise source for testing spectrum analyzer performance.
What differentiates us is the professional performance of our products. No one has been able to touch the level of value we provide. I have had many people tell me I’m underselling our products, and I agree. But it’s intentional. There is enough profit for us to thrive and remain sustainable — but not so much profit that it attracts competition. I like it that way.
The big box test and measurement companies are making a half-hearted effort to compete, but they really don’t want to vigorously compete in our space because there is not enough profit in it for them, and it cannibalizes their big box sales.
Tell us about the customers you’re serving.
Our analyzers do a great job as general-purpose spec-ans. They perform especially well at serving the needs of the spectrum monitoring community. The SM200A is a 20 GHz high performance spectrum analyzer that we just introduced in February (2018). With 1 THz/sec sweep speeds, it is poised to become an immediate industry classic. It has already been tested directly against industry favorite monitoring receivers costing more than $100,000 and found lacking in nothing.
Spectrum monitoring is a market of great interest to all of the federal government three-letter agencies, the intelligence community and also to militaries and defense contractors throughout the world. Spectrum managers in every country also have similar interests in our hardware.
40 percent of our sales are domestic, 55 percent are international distributor sales and 5 percent are international direct sales to countries not served by a distributor.
You seem pretty confident that customers will like your products, offering a 30-day trial for only the cost of shipping. Do you get many returns?
Returns are almost non-existent, and the few returns that do come in often appear to be someone wanting a free rental. We had to offer this 30-day trial period when we started, because people were skeptical that our products would perform as advertised. Skepticism of our products is no longer an issue, but we continue the 30-day trial period just to be clear that we stand behind our products.
What trends and opportunities are you seeing in the defense market?
One recent opportunity is the creation of the fifth domain — cyberspace — which has joined the other four domains of warfare — land, air, sea and space. Cyberspace is not just the internet. It encompasses data wherever it is found, including all wireless signals and links. Modern dominance in warfare will demand situational awareness of the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) inside and outside of the battlefield. Spectrum monitoring plays a critical role in this effort and with the recent establishment of the fifth domain in military doctrine, spectrum monitoring has been assured a seat at the table, where it will remain a hot topic for the foreseeable future.
What trends and opportunities are you seeing on the commercial side? Are you riding the incoming tide of 5G?
We definitely see opportunity in 5G. Reducing development time by not waiting for your turn to test is critical in the 5G race. Plus, we have received valuable feedback from 5G developers asking us to add a 2 GB circular buffer to the 160 MHz instantaneous bandwidth of the SM200A. The circular buffer will allow for a pre-trigger and frequency mask trigger to capture up to 2 s of 160 MHz instantaneous bandwidth of streaming I/Q to be used for post analysis. We are currently working on adding this 2 GB DDR3 buffer to the SM200A, which will make the instrument even more attractive for 5G work.
The test and measurement business is a leading indicator of the economy. What’s your read of the industry looking to 2019?
The economy is doing great, and sales are booming. When budgets do start to tighten, the value we offer will make Signal Hound very competitive. For the spectrum monitoring sector, I don’t think it matters what happens to the economy. This sector will continue with strong growth despite whatever the economy is doing.
When you design a new instrument using commercially-available components (e.g., MMICs, A/D and D/A converters, FPGAs), what technology gaps limit the performance and cost you’d like to achieve?
Our current limitation is not about component availability. The industry is doing a great job at continually pushing the boundaries and establishing new benchmarks. The MMICs, amps, switches, ADCs and FPGAs are all there. Our limit is space and has been for the last couple years. That is why we are building a new facility and look forward to moving in the spring.
What’s your background and what led you to start a company?
When I was a child, I played with tools instead of toys and other kids. I went to work with my father during the summers from age 5 through about age 12. My dad did floor covering, and I learned the trade early in life from him. I loved to take things apart and learn how they worked.
Then, when I was 12, I had a neighbor who was an electrical engineer at Boeing, and he started teaching me about electronics — I’ve been hooked ever since. I learned electronic repair and calibration in the U.S. Air Force, where I served for 20 years.
During my last six years in the Air Force, I started a business repairing and selling used HP/Agilent/Keysight test equipment. I always wanted to have a business, and I figured keeping my day job was the safest way to get started. It progressed into manufacturing, which is where the Signal Hound name was born.
I have two associates degrees. That’s it. I learned engineering enough to be a competent manager but not enough to design. I love the constant challenges of manufacturing.
Tell us one of the important life lessons you’ve learned during your career.
It’s simple. There is no substitute for hard work and treating others how you would want to be treated. There’s nothing better than offering customers a fair deal. It works every time.