The Story of Garmin
Garmin, the foremost GPS device manufacturing company, is one of the most interesting and successful corporations in the world. Like many companies born in the tech revolution at the end of the twentieth century, it became really big, really fast; and since its whole history only encompasses a few decades, detailed information about the company is readily available. Garmin is a truly international company, and it has already sold over 125 million GPS devices to customers in every corner of the world.
Born From the Defense Industry
In 1989, Gary Burrell teamed up with Min Kao to form a company named ProNav in Lenexa, Kansas. Both men had worked in the electronics industry. Kao had experience working for the defense contractor Magnavox, so it was natural for them to have the United States Army as their first customer. The company’s very first product was a GPS device, which sold for a whopping $2,500. Not long after that, the owners melded their first names together and changed the name of ProNav to Garmin.
Products for Boating and Flying Led the Way
Garmin’s first commercial products were geared to boaters and to pilots of small planes. Their GPS 100AVD unit, costing about $1,000, was about the size of a paperback book, and was an immediate hit, and it made Garmin into a successful business almost overnight. Soon after, Garmin introduced an innovative small plane GPS device that introduced the now familiar format of a display of the user’s position overlaid on a moving map. The map contained important waypoint information like nearby airports and homing beacons, and the unit could function as a backup to an aircraft’s instrumentation, showing the plane’s speed, altitude, and headings. These and other Garmin GPS devices turned the company into a $100 million business almost overnight. This allowed the company to expand, and to turn its attention to the market that has made it into a household word: automobile navigation. Their first entry into the market was the handheld GPS III, in 1997, which displayed the position of the driver along with the destination on a map. Garmin continued to release navigation units for autos, planes, and boats throughout the 1990s.
Positioned for Civilian Use of Military Satellites
Garmin was well positioned to take advantage of the explosive growth potential of the civilian GPS device market when the military decided to allow their GPS satellites to be used by the general public. The US military began the GPS (Global Positioning System) program in the 1970s, spending upwards of $15 billion to build and launch 24 satellites into orbit. These satellites sent out signals that could be picked up by GPS receivers on the ground, in the air, or on the water, and by comparing signals from different satellites, these units could determine the coordinates of the receivers on a map. While the Department of Defense did allow non-military use of the satellites, it severely limited the accuracy of the technology for civilian use, fearing that the satellites could be used to guide weapons launched by enemies. In 2000, that policy was rescinded, and the potential accuracy of the units was improved more than ten-fold.
The decade beginning in 2000 was one of explosive growth for Garmin. They had produced a handheld GPS receiver in the early 1990s that was popular with military personnel serving in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. This experience allowed Garmin to take advantage of the GPS system’s newfound accuracy to offer the public very capable and accurate handheld GPS receivers, which they called eTrex units. These devices were wildly popular with outdoorsmen of all kinds, and eTrex units quickly became a favorite of hikers, mountaineers, backpackers, campers, fishermen, hunters, and anyone else that spent a lot of time outdoors in remote areas.
The Nuvi Would Make Garmin a Household Name
At the same time as their eTrex units were taking the outdoor navigation market by storm, Garmin introduced a series of dedicated automobile navigation devices that quickly became industry standards and made Garmin a household word. The first GPS unit for cars had a black and white screen, and unlike the familiar Garmin units of today, it didn’t have voice commands for driving directions. In 2002, Garmin came out with the first unit to offer a color display and voice commands, the StreetPilot III.
In 2005, Garmin began offering the first model in their popular nuvi series of devices, and these quickly became the template for all GPS automobile navigation devices that followed, whether made by Garmin or other companies. The nuvi was thin enough to fit in a pocket, had a responsive touchscreen display that was easy to read and navigate, and offered very detailed maps that included important points of interest along with roadway directions. The nuvi GPS devices turned the market for navigation units from gadget lovers to the general public. Several other companies began to market similar units around this time, and prices plunged as competition heated up. The drop in prices, which happened at the same time as the units added many new features to the units, made the use of some kind of car GPS unit almost universal by the general public.
Garmin Constantly Expanded Into New Markets
Garmin has entered many other markets for GPS devices, including training watches for runners, bicycle GPS units, golf watches, and others. Recently, smartphones have begun to offer very detailed navigation applications that rival anything that a standalone GPS device can deliver. Garmin has entered that market as well, offering navigation applications suitable for use with Android, Windows Phones, and iPhones.
From One Card Table to an International Company in 25 Years
As Garmin has grown into a huge multinational corporation, it has become organized as a group of subsidiary companies located all over the globe. The parent company is Garmin Ltd., operating from Switzerland, while its subsidiary Garmin International is still located in Olathe, Kansas. It also has substantial operations and offices in Taiwan, where most of their devices are manufactured. The original company office in Kansas consisted of just two folding chairs and a card table, but Garmin has since grown to employ thousands of people around the world, huge international company listed on the Nasdaq stock market and with gross revenues of $2.76 billion a year.