LARGO — For two decades manufacturers have been making TV sets bigger, better, cheaper — and that look less and less like furniture.
"Guys buy the biggest, badest set they can afford," said Howard Hochhalter of HDEnvy LLC. "Then women wrestle for hours with how it fits the decor."
Hochhalter, 41, teamed up with Sean Thorp, 39, and went to work in his Sarasota garage creating a solution: a tasteful frame for flat-screen TVs priced for the masses.
They soon discovered why few TV makers even bother to offer frames for flat-screen models, leaving the decor-obsessed to deal with custom frame builders who want $1,000 and up.
"There are so many sizes of screens, it took us a year just to design and patent a frame mount that fits them all," Thorp said.
The company now cranks out from an obscure Largo warehouse solid wood, faux leather and laminate-covered frames for 24 types of wall-mounted screens as big as 66 inches. The frames pops off for TV repairs and work with folding or articulated wall mounts.
Hochhalter and Thorp started selling online at hdenvy.com. Then they found a Best Buy willing to stock them. The test spread to five Best Buy stores in the bay area and Sarasota.
"Many customers want something that fits their furniture," said Ric Ardo, store manager for Best Buy in St. Petersburg. "I liked these frames because they are solid wood, come in several finishes and are engineered to fit any TV."
Since January, HDEnvy sales of one a month rose to one a day, although the owners of the nine-employee business have yet to take a salary. HDEnvy sold six frames just from leads traced to 216 people signed up to follow the company on Twitter.
"You cannot direct sell on Twitter because it's social networking," Thorp said. "I follow architectural and interior design groups. When someone asks questions like how to wall-mount a TV, I volunteer help or link to a video of how to do it."
Prices aren't cheap. HDEnvy frames sell for $699 at Best Buy. Other more contemporary designs in decorative hard plastic laminates offered online start at $370. The sky is the limit for custom orders. HDEnvy has applied for licenses to make frames with University of South Florida logos for trade show, conference room and sports bar settings.
The brains behind the startup are one-time career U.S. Marines with electronics training. They both served in Okinawa, Japan, and the Phillipines, but never met until working for a local sign company. Thorp comes from a Pinellas pioneer family that in the 1890s owned an ostrich farm in what's now South Pasadena. His grandfather was an executive at Webb's City, an innovative retailing venture that covered six blocks in downtown St. Petersburg.
Hochhalter, a Virginia native who once custom-assembled rough terrain hard drives for a defense contractor, tired of winter and moved to Florida. Two years ago, a trip to the Bishop Planetarium sparked an obsession in astronomy. Now he owns six telescopes and stages the star shows on weekends at the planetarium in Bradenton.
"I lived in Australia five years managing a 24-hour-a-day night club in Sydney," he said. "Otherwise, we're geeks."
Mark Albright can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8252.