Donny Hackett Design: Behind The Rise, Fall & Return
Donny Hackett Design built some of the most lavish home theaters a decade ago, but the recession exposed a leaky business model. Now he’s back.
Jason Knott · July 29, 2013
There is little doubt that Donny Hackett is a creative genius. With no formal training in either design or architecture, he produced award-winning themed home theaters for much of the 2000s that are some of the most lavish, yet inexpensive, the custom electronics industry has ever seen, characterized by extreme use of motorization - his trademark.
His company, Donny Hackett Design, collected awards and recognition like taking candy from a baby. He was featured in countless publications, winning Electronic House magazine’s Best Home Theater $100,000-$250,000, bronze award for his Titanic-themed theater, in 2007, and the Nashville Parade of Homes Best Home Theater Award for four consecutive years, from 2004 to 2007.
But behind all the accolades was the hidden truth that the Hackett’s design and custom installation company never really made a sustainable profit, primarily because he focused so heavily on creating affordable solutions for his clients to the detriment of his own bottom line. He routinely constructed the themed theaters based on his designs for 70 percent less than bids from other integrators. For example, his award-winning Titanic theater - valued at $200,000 - was designed and built for just $40,000.
Hackett’s story is one of high promise, creativity and extreme attention to detail that masked an original but flawed business model. And it’s a lesson for all integrators about making sure you earn the money you deserve to make for every job, finding the common ground between saving your clients money without undercutting your own profit potential, and reining in your ego just a tad. Now on the comeback trail with a file cabinet full of lessons learned, Hackett is determined do it right this time around.
A Principled Principal
In Ayn Rand’s classic novel “The Fountainhead,” the main character is an architect who refuses to compromise his principles in any fashion. Donny Hackett is that guy. Throughout the mid-2000s, Donny Hackett Design in Hendersonville, Ky., designed and built with meticulous craftsmanship themed theaters that became labors of love.
Hackett has always loved home theater and had a knack for finding deals. Long before he got in the design business, he found a used $6,000 Runco projector online for just $500 for his own home. Getting into the home theater design business “kind of happened by accident,” he recalls. His dad had a drapery business, so Hackett was always involved in installing window coverings while he pursued his own music career. One day, in 1997, he had to install some window coverings for a home theater in Hollywood’s Coldwater Canyon. The homeowner was entertaining proposals for a new home theater from several integrators, trying to get them to do the job as a trade out for equipment. None of them, including former CE Pro 100 integrator Randy Wilson of Wilson Home Theater and John Heberling of Innovative Theaters in Santa Monica, Calif., would end up doing it, recalls Hackett.
“I guess without realizing it I stole the job from them,” he says.
The homeowner did product placement for movies, so he had access to lots of products. Hackett did the home theater in exchange for personal equipment. Hackett built the entire theater in the homeowner’s garage over six months because he didn’t have his own shop.
From there, Hackett formed a relationship with Innovative Theaters and was working on famous homes for Hollywood stars, including Liberace. “Heberling wasn’t like most home theater integrators who simply put up a screen and surrounded it with kitchen cabinets. He was an architect. I was assigned to build the things that he drew,” says Hackett.
In the early 2000s, when Hackett and his family moved to Tennessee, he decided to try the home theater design and installation business on his own, full time, despite having no formal education in architecture or design. In 2004, he did his first Parade of Homes competition with Nashville integrator Imagine Audio. His design won the award for Best Home Theater, an award he also won each of the next three years as well, each time working with a different homebuilder. Those Parade of Homes competitions that annually drew 30,000 attendees became Hackett’s only source of advertising, plus word of mouth.
“I didn’t think I could design rooms, but it just turned out that I could. My main motivation for doing home theater is gadget, geek-based. I love the idea of hidden doors and pocket doors. It’s kind of James Bond stuff . At these Parade of Homes, the builder would hand me $30,000 and I would make it look like he spent $250,000. It was just a way to show off,” says Hackett, who uses Mastercam software to create 3D renderings of his designs.
Soon Hackett’s phone was ringing off the hook from homeowners requesting his services. His creativity had few limits. He was even refusing projects. If the homeowners already had drawings and sketches of what they wanted, Hackett did not take the job.
“If they already knew what they wanted, I would find an integrator to build it for them,” he says. “I would tell them, ‘You really don’t need me.’ I don’t know if that is an out-of-control ego or just me trying to avoid potential conflict in the future of my vision vs. what they wanted.”
Nevertheless, Hackett was riding high. Many of his motorized projects utilized garage door openers, not custom motors or lifts. Hackett loved the technology behind garage door openers that have battery backups and auto reverse sensors that kick in when an obstruction is sensed to avoid potential injury. Motorization is his forte. Every room he designs has some sort of TV popping out of the floor, motorized doors and bookcases, or some other trick.
He recalls one project where he designed the seats on the floor to rotate 180 degrees like the stage in “The Newlywed Game”… “just because I always wanted to do that. So when you walk in the seats are facing each other. When it’s time to watch a movie, one entire row rotates 180 degrees to form theater seating.
Jason Knott is Chief Content Officer for Emerald Expositions Connected Brands. Jason has covered low-voltage electronics as an editor since 1990, serving as editor and publisher of Security Sales & Integration. He joined CE Pro in 2000 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of that brand. He served as chairman of the Security Industry Association’s Education Committee from 2000-2004 and sat on the board of that association from 1998-2002. He is also a former board member of the Alarm Industry Research and Educational Foundation. He has been a member of the CEDIA Business Working Group since 2010. Jason graduated from the University of Southern California. Have a suggestion or a topic you want to read more about? Email Jason at email@example.com
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