Founder Jon Bach on avoiding the PC rabbit hole.
Exclusive interview conducted by Jody Michelle Solis
Jon Bach founded Puget Systems in December 2000. Today, his primary role is to make sure everyone else has the tools and resources to do their jobs, providing great products and customer experiences. He is also the face of the company with Puget Systems’ partners and vendors.
Jon started Puget Systems because he felt there was a need he could fill. In his opinion, the industry was full of low-quality products and sales tactics that didn’t care about what customers actually needed. He wanted to provide a quality product with a purpose.
In addition to his role at Puget Systems, Jon also represents the company on the Intel Board of Advisors, which helps Intel see the real-world application of their products, and how to better serve their users.
Outside the office, Jon is an avid trumpet player, and enjoys the opportunity to volunteer for church orchestras and local musical productions. He enjoys spending time outside with his family, camping and Jeeping up in the mountains all around the beautiful Pacific Northwest.
Can you tell us a little bit about Puget Systems’ beginnings? What was the inspiration and passion that started the company?
JON BACH: I founded Puget Systems in December 2000. At that time, I was in college, just looking for creative ways to pay the rent. At that time, AMD was competing well with Intel, and yet I saw that most big-box stores were still pushing Intel products at high prices. I saw a chance to come in and help people by building computers using AMD processors that got them more performance for their dollar. As I got into the industry, I discovered just how rampant it was that companies would try to sell people not what they needed, but what they could convince you to buy. I decided that I would run Puget Systems differently. I knew that by taking a more long-term view, I could truly help people, and build long-term recurring relationships. I can’t tell you how happy I am that worked out! It is a great feeling to know that “doing the right thing” can actually be a successful business model! It gives me great satisfaction, and it attracts great people into Puget Systems, both employees and customers.
Up until 2008, we were still focusing quite a bit on home PCs and gaming. The recession of 2008-2009 ended up being very good for us long term. It forced me to be more deliberate about HOW we approach our business and WHY. If you haven’t seen the “Golden Circle” talk by Simon Sinek, I recommend you check it out! That exercise helped me identify WHAT we do need to change — moving away from home PCs, and to professional workstations. That was where we could really shine, by really adding value. At that time, Puget Labs was born, where we continuously test hardware against software. In the same way that I built AMD computers in 2001 to help get more value and performance for the dollar for my clients, now we design purpose-built solutions for a multitude of workloads. By being specific, with detailed conversations with every client, we can provide more performance and value, and save our clients from spending on things that won’t help their work.
Sorry for the long answer! I am passionate about this stuff!
During Puget Systems’ beginnings, what issues did you want to address and provide solutions for?
JON BACH: What I enjoyed most was getting to know each client and providing them with what THEY needed. I wasn’t there to make a sale and disappear. I am proud to remember every client from the first few years. Marcel, Robert, Samantha, Saynop, Cedar, Jade, Coral … I wonder if they know how often I think back to them, grateful that they trusted their business to this kid in Seattle just getting started. I learned a lot from them, and the lessons I learned of the mutual benefits of truly caring and helping people, have stuck with me these last 20 years.
What special needs, lack in technology, or advances in technology launched the development of your Post-Production Workstations?
JON BACH: As we shifted our attention to workstations in 2008, we quickly realized just how ignored that sector was by the industry. The computer industry tends to focus on volume. Like many industries, it is a pyramid shape. At the base, you have entry-level PCs, home PCs, and low-end gaming PCs. The computer industry TENDS to be commodity-based. The cheaper you get, the more you sell. With volume, you get more opportunity to negotiate your price and be paid for bloatware. There is tremendous pressure to focus on price and price alone. So… the top of that pyramid… the more high end and expensive configurations, tend to be ignored. We saw a great opportunity to come in and provide our expertise to a segment of the market that wasn’t getting that attention. What we found was that SO MANY PEOPLE were buying hardware that they not only didn’t need, but that was more expensive and slower. Let that sink in. People were paying MORE to get computers that were SLOWER. It drove us mad. That is part of why we publish all of our articles publicly, even if that might not be the best way to maximize the sale of our workstations. We’re trying to shape an entire industry by shining a light on the fact that the RIGHT hardware for the job will almost always be faster than the most expensive hardware.
What are some of the advantages and benefits for filmmakers of choosing workstation specialists?
JON BACH: We believe that content creators, engineers, and scientists have better things to do than to be PC experts. The typical experience with a PC is that you have to be a hardware and software expert, or at least know someone who is. We think that is nuts! People have better things to do than be PC experts. Every minute they spend on that, they are NOT spending on their craft. The satisfaction we get at Puget Systems, is facilitating the great work of our clients. To do that, we have to know their work. When a filmmaker calls us up, we don’t want to talk about SSD types and PCI-E versions. We want to talk about rendering performance and codecs. By knowing their workflow, we can translate that into PC hardware. They don’t need to be PC experts, because we are the experts, and we understand how to apply that knowledge to their field.
JON BACH: There is no one answer for that. Especially now with AMD competing well against Intel again! We carry over 400 products in our product line, ensuring that we can provide an optimized solution for every workflow we support. That is actually a quite small product line, compared to industry average. We work very hard to keep a product line that is as big as it needs to be to do that job, but no bigger. By keeping ourselves as focused as possible, we can spend less time managing a vast product line, and more time improving the product by working directly with manufacturers (Intel, AMD, NVIDIA, Samsung, Micron, ASUS, Gigabyte, etc.), and learning the workflows of our clients.
There are definitely some products that shine right now though. The Intel 9900K processor, on the Z390 chipset, is by far our biggest seller. It is a fantastic processor — great performance, and SIMPLE. The simplicity of that platform allows it to scale very well on most workloads and is very reliable. We are also seeing a fast rise of AMD processors, specifically AMD Threadripper. With a focus on core count, they aren’t right for every workflow, but for work that can scale to use those cores, they are excellent!
Adobe Premiere Pro now rivals Avid in popularity within the film industry. Many Hollywood films have been edited with Premiere. What are some of the advantages and benefits of working in the Adobe workflow for filmmakers?
JON BACH: I would add “Davinci Resolve” to that same question… it is amazing to see how far that product has come in the last few years. There are two benefits we gain by focusing on those software alternatives to Avid.
First, it means we tend to help more of the newer or smaller shops. The huge Hollywood studios TEND to be more developed, with more experience knowing what hardware they need, and with IT staff on hand to help work through problems. Those shops simply need our help less often. The smaller shops, on the other hand… and I say this with love… are often a mess! They are still trying to figure things out, and they need help. It is satisfying to be able to give them that help, especially because the work they produce is fresh and innovative! We live in a magical time, where advancements in technology have provided opportunities for small shops to produce content that rivals or is even better than the huge studios. We love that democratization of the craft.
The second benefit is that it allows us to add value and shape a workflow that is still developing. By working directly with the teams at Adobe, we can be advocates for our clients, helping the development teams prioritize their work. We can help steer them to features that better utilize the hardware (and therefore provide better performance) or that we see that our clients need.
What kinds of customization do you offer?
JON BACH: This is an interesting question because the customization we offer is very different than what you see from many of the consumer or gaming-oriented companies. Where we DON’T offer much customization, is on what color cabling you want. Or liquid cooling. Or lighting. We won’t paint your chassis any color you want. We won’t special order in a brand of motherboard you want because you prefer that brand. Those are all very “tech enthusiast” customizations, and we don’t go down that road.
Where we DO customize, is on options that impact the performance of your workstation against your workflow. We do the work to figure out what foundation configuration is the prerequisite for doing your job. Then we step back and leave the finishing details to you. What size of box fits best on your desk? How much storage do you need? Will you have direct-attached or network-attached storage? What connectivity do you need? 10G network? Thunderbolt?
For every software package we support, we definitely have starting points. But those are there to give you a starting point to customize from. We don’t think of our product line as a discrete number of configurations to choose from. We think of our product line as 400 ingredient components that we can combine to build a solution specifically for each person.
What are some things you’re doing for education and student filmmakers?
JON BACH: Beyond sponsoring schools and learning, I think the biggest contribution we make is by NOT focusing our time and energy on the massive studios. We feel strongly that the best work is produced when there is healthy competition, and that’s true both in PC hardware and in filmmaking. We believe that technology today enables people to produce amazing content with even just one or a handful of people, and so we enjoy supporting that effort by service and helping the smaller shops. We can help get them off the ground, by removing the burden of technology. The technology should be a tool to help get their job done, not another headache that gets in the way.
Could you tell us about the kind of technical support you offer?
JON BACH: Lifetime! But even better, our approach in technical support is the same as when we’re designing the computer with you — we believe that you shouldn’t have to be a computer expert. We work hard to train all our service staff in the workflow of our clients, so they can help you, in your language. We understand how incredibly frustrating it is to have your workstation go down when your project is due the next morning. We give all our people the training to understand the work, and the freedom to solve problems in creative ways. I share one example: we keep a company Amazon account loaded up with gift cards and give everyone in the company access. If your monitor is cutting out, and we suspect a bad HDMI cable… even when that isn’t our equipment… we’ll just Amazon overnight you a new cable. Our mission isn’t limited to making sure the computer is working properly. Our mission is to make sure you can do your work. Not only is that better for you, but it is immensely satisfying for us!
What sets Puget Systems apart from other companies?
JON BACH: Our focus and dedication on content creation, engineering, and scientific work is I think what is most unique. There are many other companies that will say they have that focus, but really they’re only scratching the surface. I enjoy seeing just how deep we can go with this focus, because the more we invest, the stronger we get, and the more value we provide!
If you could share a piece of advice or inspiration with filmmakers, video editors, and storytellers around the world, what would it be?
JON BACH: Don’t be afraid to try something new! The biggest asset that you have isn’t that you’re not locked into “the way it is supposed to be done.” Technology today enables us to do things that weren’t even possible before, and that means that you don’t have to be a huge studio to tell your story. We love seeing the creative work that our clients put out. Please share it with us also! Sharing the work our clients do around the company internally is a great motivator for us