December, 2013

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Michael Valentine – A True Entrepreneur

By Riptide (member and Administrator on the forum)

When Michael Valentine was in grade school he lived in the suburbs of Vandalia Ohio. He was overweight and very self-conscious. Being picked on in school didn’t stop him from being independent and pursuing his hobbies such as playing the sousaphone and tinkering with ham radios. Early on he had little motivation for schoolwork and didn’t know what type of career path he wanted to take. When college time rolled around he decided to attend the University of Cincinnati as an electrical engineering major, mainly based on his interest in radios. After his fifth quarter, however, he was forced to withdraw due to a low GPA. Vietnam was going on at the time and Michael applied to Wright State so that he could keep his draft deferment. Michael realized that while he was intelligent, the only difference between him and students with high grades was hard work. After two quarters he went back to the University of Cincinnati with a new outlook and achieved a 4.0 during his remaining time there.

After graduation he married a woman named Margaret and got his first job with R.L. Drake Company. The reason Michael choose Electrical Engineering as his major was his interest in ham radios, and the same was true for his first job, R.L. Drake manufactured them. Unfortunately mixing this hobby with a career didn’t work out for Michael; after working as an engineer, switching to the marketing department, and then going to work for three different radio companies, he finally got fed up and went back to school as an MBA.

Radar was first used by police for traffic enforcement in 1965, and Michael got well acquainted with it during college due to his new found hobby of sports cars. Michael felt like police all of the sudden changed from crime fighters into revenue agents. Being an engineer, he knew radar worked by shooting radar waves at moving cars, and then interpreting the signals that bounced back from the cars. An idea soon formed in Michael’s mind of a device that could see the radar waves early enough so that he could slow down before the reflecting beams from his car were strong enough to give the police officer a speed reading. He began working with his friend Jim Jaeger on the project and their first prototype was housed in a Kodak Brownie camera. The preliminary tests of their first detector were so impressive it actually scared them so much that they were afraid to tell anyone about it for two weeks.

The pair decided to go into business together but couldn’t get a loan from a bank because of their limited assets. To get the loan they partnered with Michael’s father so the bank would approve. It was then that Cincinnati Microwave was born, and Michael’s first radar detector was named “Escort.” Unfortunately for the three men, their detector wasn’t the first to hit the market; the “Fuzzbuster” had been developed by Dale Smith quicker, but the Escort was a superior product due to using a much more advanced technology. This increase with performance did come with an increase in price, so much so that they were forced to sell it direct, without any resellers, just to keep the price at around twice that of their competitors. Michael decided that their only form of marketing would be from ads in magazines and word of mouth. They set a goal of selling 250 units in their first month and beat that number by six. Their sales increased dramatically in 1979 when Car & Driver ran tests on all the major radar detectors on the market and said: “Only one model, the Escort, truly stood out from the rest…once you try the Escort, all the rest seem a bit primitive. In no test did any of the other detectors even come close.” Soon Cincinnati Microwave had a waiting list for the Escort that would take seven months to fill.

Although much of Cincinnati Microwave’s success was due to the engineering behind the Escort, a good part of it can be attributed to the non-traditional ways the three founders setup the company. Similar to the rule breakers of today such as Google, Cincinnati Microwave did things differently. Michael thought that boundaries and hierarchies stifled innovation so he rented a building that had absolutely no interior walls, setup the company without a multi-tiered corporate structure, allowed open communication between departments, and gave every employee’s ideas the same amount of thought and consideration. If he felt like one of his employees had consistently good ideas and strategies, he gave them free reign to do what they want instead of having to check everything with him or either of the other two founders. To most people this would seem like chaos, but in Michael’s eyes it was innovation. At the companies prime they had reached a quarter million dollars in sales for each employee at a rate of 250 Escorts per hour.

Things took a turn for the worse when the multi-headed dragon started to get conflicting direction from each of its heads. Jim Jaeger wanted to use resellers, and expand their product line to sell multiple detectors with varying degrees of performance like their competitors, while Michael Valentine felt that having one high performance product and selling it direct should be priority. Knowing that things could not continue like this, Michael and his father offered to each give Jim six million dollars to buy him out of his portion of the company for a total of twelve million. Jim didn’t want to sell out of the company so he offered to try and come up with $24 million to buy Michael and his father out of their shares. Michael didn’t think Jim would be able to come up with the money so he accepted the offer with the stipulation that if Jim couldn’t raise the funds in a few months, Jim would sell his share to the Valentines. Surprisingly Jim came knocking with money in hand, most of which he got from loans. On his way out Michael signed a non-compete agreement and began trying to figure out what to do next. Jim took the company reigns and decided the best way to pay back the large debt was to go public.

A normal person probably would have just call it quits and retire rich, but Michael was a true entrepreneur. His joy came from doing things differently, developing a new product that excited him, and running a company with methods that made its employees love to work there. He started a company called “Valentine Research” and tried to duplicate what he had done at Cincinnati Microwave with other products such as satellite dishes and automotive products, but they weren’t successful. The non-compete didn’t last forever and in 1992 Valentine Research released a truly innovative radar detector called the “Valentine One.”

Michael stuck with the business model he wanted to implement at Cincinnati Microwave, only making one model and selling direct. His revamped detector was much different from the Escort and Michael patented his new design which incorporated an extra radar receiving antenna facing the car’s rear; this allowed the detector to indicate the direction of the radar source/threat instead of just an audible “beep,” setting it apart from other detectors. (Valentine Patent 5083129) A redesigned frequency sweep permitted multiple radar bands to be scanned during one local oscillator sweep (Valentine Patent 5917441), and would give the Valentine One a huge performance edge later when police developed a shooting method nicknamed “Quick Trigger.” It wasn’t just a new design and features that set the Valentine One apart, just like Michael’s first detector the Escort, its performance was beyond what any other company brought to the table. In the first year of its release Car and Driver reported: “Not since our first test of the original Cincinnati Microwave Escort in 1979 has a detector dominated one of our tests as thoroughly as the new Valentine One.”

Many people were drawn to the V1 (Valentine One) because it promised to be the last radar detector they would ever have to buy. Instead of releasing new models like his competitors, Michael setup a system so that as Valentine Research made improvements to the V1 design, new versions would be released. The appearance of the detector didn’t change much with these revisions, and any customer with an older version could send their detector back to Valentine Research to be upgraded for a fee which was much less than buying a new unit.

Lidar, a speed measuring technology using invisible infrared light instead of radar waves, had been slowly gaining in popularity since its introduction in the late 1980s. This new technology posed an interesting dilemma to radar detector manufacturers; unlike radar the beam emitted from a lidar gun was many degrees smaller in diameter than radar and it did not travel as far when reflecting off surfaces. These properties made it nearly impossible to detect unless the detector was in the car that was being specifically targeted, at which point the lidar unit had already attained a speed measurement. However, unlike radar, the light waves emitted from a lidar unit were not regulated by the FCC; this meant there was no federal law against jamming lidar. A few states had made laws against it, nine in total so far, but many radar detector manufactures began designing and manufacturing lidar, also known as laser, jamming systems. Even though there was money to be made in this new market, Michael chose to keep Valentine Research out of the laser jamming business. Detecting the presence of something is one thing, but actually interfering with police equipment took it to a level Michael wasn’t comfortable associating his company with; radar detectors were only illegal in one of the fifty states, Virginia. Instead the engineers at Valentine Research set about improving the laser detection capabilities of the V1. They succeeded and gave the V1 laser detection capabilities many magnitudes greater than their competition. If you had a V1 in your car a laser alert no longer meant it was already to late, you might have a chance to slow down in time.

As more and more detectors made their way into cars on the road, police began to implement techniques to defeat them. Some kept their radar units off until they saw a possible speeder, and then turned it on for a few seconds to get that vehicle’s speed. Others took this technique a step further and would only turn the radar unit on for a fraction of a second at a time. These quick bursts of radar were very difficult for many radar detectors to see, but the V1’s unique frequency sweep (Valentine Patent 5917441) allows it to pick up radar bursts over 200 milliseconds in length consistently when run using the correct settings.

For many years Michael Valentine made the undisputed king of radar detectors. Recently, however, things have changed and 2011 promises to be a very interesting year for the radar detector industry. Ironically the only competitor that challenges Valentine Research’s radar detection performance is a company called Escort. When Cincinnati Microwave went bankrupt on April 9th 1997, the vice president of operations Greg Blair, partnered with Chicago businessman Matthew Coleman, bought all of Cincinnati Microwave’s assets, and formed Escort. When Escort bought Beltronics they became the only company making high end detectors comparable to the V1. Escort’s engineers have been coming out with more new designs and the list of things that set the V1 apart keeps getting smaller. Not only did Escort implement much better filtering of false alerts, but they also embraced GPS technology using it to build a database of speedtraps, speed cameras, and redlight cameras. The detectors produced by Escort started getting smarter and could even learn the location of false alerts, mute them automatically, alert the user to real threats with a voice prompt, and display the frequency of the signal being detected. Some performance oriented consumers were not impressed by these new features, but when Escort started releasing detectors based off their redesigned M3 antenna (STi-Driver, STi-R, 9500CI, and Redline) whose sensitivity gave them more range than the mighty V1, as well as the ability to be undetected by police radar detector detectors used in Virginia, heads were turned.

No longer the undisputed top dog when it comes to range, the V1 still stands out due to its directional arrows and superior detection of quick trigger. These things may soon come to an end. Escort has developed software that allows its M3 antenna to pick up quick trigger bursts with even more consistency than the V1, however, it has not been fully implemented yet. Furthermore the patent that Michael Valentine holds on the directional arrows expires in 2011. (Valentine Patent 5083129) If Escort or another company releases a detector with these features the unique allure of the V1 will be limited to Michael’s upgrade program. The question then becomes, “Does Michael Valentine still have that entrepreneur bug that drives innovation or is he done?” If there isn’t a “Valentine Two” in our near future the high performance radar detector market may once again be dominated by one company, Escort. We will find out soon.