Thom Tanner, CEO of TeleStepper, knows about pivoting. He was working for a medical devices manufacturer in Grass Valley when his brother Neil asked him to help solve a problem. Lucasfilm needed a teleprompter that could be quickly adjusted between two speakers who were nearly two feet apart in height without a stage hand getting up on stage to manually move it. Tanner and his future business partner, Steve McNerney, designed a prototype on their lunch break. Lucasfilm loved it.
Tanner realized there was a real need for robotic teleprompters that could be raised and lowered by remote control, matching a speaker’s line of sight with the audience. He had just turned 50, and had been working for 20 years at the same company. It was time for a leap of faith. Tanner and McNerney started TeleStepper in 2014, selling their robotic teleprompters by word of mouth. When the staff at the White House discovered their product and ordered 100 TeleSteppers, the business took off. They are now the official supplier of teleprompters to the White House and Apple, among other prestigious organizations.
TeleStepper is still based right here in Nevada City, California, just blocks from the Tech Hub at New Mohawk. They pride themselves on using local suppliers for all of their machined parts and components. “The guy who does our powder coating is right across the street,” said Tanner. “We literally take our tubes that get machined in Colfax or Auburn and push them across the street on a cart. We are trying in our small way to be part of the re-shoring movement in the United States, leading by example and still making a profit.”
As their business has grown, they have finally gotten around to marketing it. The ERC’s Nevada County Tech Connection, in partnership with the nonprofit California Manufacturing Technology Consulting, has provided free marketing advice and resources to help them with brand placement, product awareness, and SEO on their website. “Having the Tech Connection and the ERC provide local services where we could meet face to face had a bigger impact than meeting with someone from somewhere else,” said Tanner. “NCTC is partnering with us – they want to see us succeed. If we do well, they do well. They have already saved us from making a few costly mistakes.”
Since the quarantine, Tanner and McNerney have had to think in another new direction and prepare for a world without large audiences. They have already started developing new products for smaller crowds and a product that assists with teleconferencing. Tanner is optimistic about growing and marketing the business and hiring more local employees to support this new pivot.