At his school’s career day, Jonathan Grado’s friends were dressed as sports players and lawyers. Jonathan walked into the classroom with headphones around his neck and said, “I’m going to be my dad.”
But for him, that was normal.
“Sound and heritage” is what differentiates Grado Labs, Jonathan Grado, vice president of marketing says. “I don’t think other companies can reproduce our story that we have. We’re a small family, and we’re still making headphones by hand in Brooklyn, just as we were in 1953.”
Like many “family brands,” Grado Labs is run out of the building in which it was conceived. Unlike many competing brands though, Grado has not wavered from its sound-focused roots, despite the ever-evolving music industry.
Three generations of Grado
Their story began 60 years ago, when John Grado, CEO of Grado Labs (and Jonathan’s father), became heir to the throne, so to speak. In 1953, John’s uncle started making phonograph cartridges on his kitchen table, before opening the Brooklyn factory in 1955 – as a 9-year-old, John was immersed in the family business, as he lived just upstairs from the storefront. An eager worker, John learned the ropes by sweeping the floors, running the machines and looking over his uncle’s shoulders.
When his uncle moved out to New Jersey in 1978, John took over daily operations. “It was like being thrown into the river as a baby. You learn to swim.” For a more thorough timeline, Grado Labs offers a great visualization on its website. John’s uncle passed down knowledge, but John claims the family’s ability to decipher quality sound is also innate, inherent in Grado genes. “I know how to listen to things,” he says.
Today, Grado Labs has around twenty-two full-time employees, and although only three of them have the Grado surname, the familial feeling pervades. Just walk downstairs and you’ll find height markings on the wall, which an employee drew of Jonathan. “Everyone in the building I’ve known for 23 years now. Everyone in the company is part of the family,” Jonathan says.
Steady growth, but not without struggle
When the store first opened, the Grado family sold phonograph cartridges, turntables, speakers and accessories. It wasn’t until the late ’80s that the company diversified. “When the compact disc was introduced, our cartridge sales went from 10,000 units a week, and in 1990, a low of 12,000 for the year. We knew what was coming and we had to consciously think about what we could do to diversify. We figured that we could probably make an impact in the headphone business.”
And when Grado made that change, sales slowed. While the company had some prestige, this was a whole new product line. “First run of headphones, we had a desk that might have been four feet by two feet wide, and my wife and I sat down at the desk and made the headphones. We’d get an order for six pairs of headphones and we’d be jumping up and down with joy,” John recalls. But from that point on, there’s been a natural growth, he says. “We rely on word-of-mouth advertising and the world slowly keeps expanding.”
Cultivating the ‘Grado sound’
The Grado product doesn’t rely on bells and whistles – it’s all about the sound. While it’s important to stay adaptable to what’s going on in the headphone business, Grado runs its own race, Jonathan says. “If we let everything influence us, we’d have waterproof, bluetooth, closed-back headphones, which would be cool, but we’ve focused on our sound. We’ve had 60 years to really perfect the Grado sound, and we just keep improving on it.“
While other companies release new product lines each year for the shock or wow factor, Grado’s philosophy is to iterate to generate a better product, not just a shiny new thing to keep up with the product cycle. “We decide to come out with new models when we have new ideas that improve on old models … until we have those new ideas, we stick with the old models,” John says.
The company has been working on its newly released eSeries for a year and a half, a product line that “has been upgraded and optimized for one purpose – outstanding dynamics and fidelity,” the company website says. The headphones “bring you closer to your favorite artists,” as the superior sonic production leaves little between you and the performance.
Passing the baton
One day, John will relinquish his managerial duties onto his sons, but when that day arrives, he’ll still remain a guiding presence in the background.
Since Jonathan’s involvement in the company, Grado Labs has adapted to the digital revolution, evident by its surge on social media. The company’s Facebook page has garnered just shy of 50,000 organic fans in the past two years, and unlike its competitors, Grado has a zero dollar ad budget.
When someone buys Grado headphones, they become part of the family – as long as they leave their shoes at the door, Jonathan jokes. As the master of Grado marketing, he understands the power of social media and cultivating close relationships with customers. “Becoming more social and really building a strong community online that we can engage with in a split second is really powerful.”
While Grado Labs has an exquisite history that breathes life into its headphones, the future of the company is looking bright, and Jonathan agrees: “I think the third generation of Grado is something to look forward to.”
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