Entrepreneurial alumni find new inspiration in making musical and nonmusical products.
|"When a good idea comes to you, it's like when you're writing a song and come up with a great guitar lick or lyric."
Creative musicians by nature are entrepreneurs. Many are familiar with bursts of inspiration, and some act on their ideas that have the potential to help others and become lucrative business propositions. But developing useful inventions from an initial good idea takes lots of hard work and relentless follow-through. Bringing a product to market requires capital investments to protect one's intellectual property and produce a prototype. Then an inventor has to face the decision of whether to start a business or license the idea to a larger company. What follows are the stories of four alumni who started out humbly with a good ideas and developed products now in the marketplace.
While working as a professional guitarist, Bob Koszela '99 fashioned a simple wooden device equipped with felt pads for wiping down his strings to prolong string life and prevent the damage that string corrosion causes to guitar frets and fingerboards. Koszela learned the value of his simple device unexpectedly from a friend. "He started playing one of my guitars and was put off by how dull and lifeless the strings were," Koszela says. "So I took out my string cleaner and wiped the strings down. My friend took the guitar back and played it again and said, 'Wow, what was that thing? You should do something with it.' That started me thinking that I had good idea and should follow through with it.
"When a good idea comes to you, it's like when you're writing a song and come up with a great guitar lick or lyric. If you wake up the next morning and it's still with you, it's probably something you should work with. I woke up the next morning, and this was all I could think about."
Koszela earned an MP&E degree from Berklee and after graduation moved to Los Angeles to work in the studios. He engineered for such artists as Macy Gray, Eminem, Dr. Dre, the Black Eyed Peas, Blues Traveler, and others before finding himself out of work. With a severance package easing financial pressures, Koszela decided it was a good time to explore options for manufacturing his device and making it available to other guitarists. He contacted a computer-aided designer who presented him with a number of options. Koszela wanted the product to be inexpensive, unbreakable, and small enough to fit in a pocket. They came up with plausible designs, but shouldering the cost of making a plastic injection mold to manufacture the product, and then marketing and shipping it seemed overwhelming to Koszela.
"I heard about Steve Schneider, a business consultant in Santa Rosa, [California], who was advising ordinary people with good ideas about how to develop products and get them to market," he says. "I was on a waiting list for three months for an appointment just to talk with him on the phone, but it was worth it. He was great. He told me to make a prototype, get letters of recommendation from guitarists and guitar techs, and go to the NAMM Show [in 2008], and show my prototype to companies that would wish they'd come up with it."
While there were other cloth-and-paper string wipes on the market, Koszela's tool was unique in that it is a simple and highly effective device that uses friction to clean both sides of the string simultaneously with felt pads. He protected his idea by applying for a patent. "The U.S. patent cost me about $6,500," he says. "I had to make claims to show that this was a unique product. We made 21 claims, and six were approved, and I was issued a patent."
Several companies and investors were interested right away. Koszela decided to go with Planet Waves, a division of D'Addario string manufacturers. "Planet Waves is the Coca-Cola of the guitar accessories companies," Koszela says. "When I showed this to them, they were very excited about it. I learned from my consultant that many deals are lost in the negotiation stage. I didn't want to be a pushover, but I wanted to be flexible too. It took a year and a half from the time the people at Planet Waves first expressed interest to the point when they were ready to make me an offer. They are very straightforward and honest and made a fair offer, so I signed the licensing deal."
The Planet Waves licensing agreement is for the duration of the patent, but Koszela retained ownership of his product and receives a percentage of the wholesale price the company charges to dealers. Since 2010, Koszela's Renew string cleaning system has been available internationally, selling for about the price of a set of strings. Koszela hopes it will become as indispensable as a peg winder to working guitarists.
Koszela is currently employed at Universal Music Group as a recording engineer and moonlights as an independent producer, but he continues to savor the taste of entrepreneurship. "I have been thinking of new ideas and see so many opportunities now. Currently, I'm working with some people on a new archiving product for magnetic tape. If you have a good idea for a new product or an improvement on an existing one, just call up new product managers at companies and present it. If it's good, someone will see the value of it. I'm not afraid to go out there with new ideas now. They say winners are losers who never gave up."
|"There is nothing more positive for a tool manufacturer than to hear that the person using the tool has never had a problem with it."
Gear with Heart
To Josh Florian '00, small is better, and less is more. Florian founded JCF Audio, a boutique pro-audio-gear manufacturing business that he operates from his apartment in North Hollywood, California. He harbors no aspirations of mass-producing his most popular device, a two-channel A/D, D/A (analog-to-digital, digital-to-analog) mic preamp called Latte, and selling it nationwide through large music retailers. Florian's business plan has involved reaching out to top recording engineers such as Doug Sax, Bill Schnee, and Al Schmitt, who have bought his gear.
"We try to put our tools into the hands of professionals," Florian says. "At this stage, seeking professionals is harder because, to a large degree, that market has dissolved into the home-recording industry. The pool of pros that own a studio, do recording work on a daily basis, and get paid for it is finite and shrinking every day. We made a big splash in that market, and I don't think we can get much bigger. So our company is growing in a pool that is shrinking."
But having a small customer pool of suits Florian just fine. He's a purist who enjoys serving the small but discerning group of pros that can hear the difference between his devices and those sold at big-box stores. That clientele can also afford the understandably high cost of his gear.
Florian and Nicole Feeder, (who he calls his "sidekick in solder'), assemble all JCF products by hand with top-shelf components in an effort to make their equipment the best available. "We make four commercial products," Florian says. "We are trying to keep the product count down and make the most important and useful product we can. When a business's volume expands, maximizing profits hinges on reducing expenses. But in a low volume-count business, spending $2 rather than 10 cents on an electrolytic capacitor doesn't affect my bottom line very much. That's how a small business can win."
As a kid, Florian was always taking things apart to see how they worked, and during his youth, he developed an interest in both drumming and electronics. Becoming an MP&E major at Berklee was a natural fit for him. He recalls making his own electronic equipment. "At Berklee, I was building converters for myself and learned how to make something better and cheaper than a piece of equipment I could buy off the shelf at Guitar Center," he says. After graduation, he took a job in a Boston studio as a recording engineer doing hip-hop and rap sessions. In 2001, he moved to Los Angeles and began working with Grammy-winning mastering engineer Gavin Lurssen '91. And in 2004, Florian launched JCF Audio with the conviction that he could improve on digital/audio-conversion systems and began creating his own distinctive line of products.
"There is a science to good sound on a very fundamental level," Florian says. "Most of what I do is based on a different electronic language than that used for other products being made today. I learned from engineers that were trying to do the best they could with very little. Discrete tube and solid-state equipment has always interested me and pleased my ear."
Florian's products are also pleasing others' ears, and his focus on quality workmanship and customer satisfaction are hallmarks of his success. And while he is connecting with top engineers, he avoids appearing to be, as he puts it, "an endorsement hooker."
"I care about what my customers are doing whether or not they have a big name. I want my product to mean something to buyers and be worthwhile. Some companies develop a marketing strategy just to convince people to buy a product-even if it's nothing special. We don't want people to feel they spent a lot of money and didn't get the value they expected. We really have something, and my job is convince people just to take a look at what we have."
A few pro-audio dealers-such as Mercenary Audio in Massachusetts and Vintage King Audio and RSPE Audio Solutions in Los Angeles, carry JCF Audio gear, but Florian also demonstrates the products for customers one on one in his apartment. He counts on word-of-mouth publicity rather than purchasing expensive magazine ads. "Word of mouth from a trusted source has a lot of power in this field," he says.
Since Florian's customer base is small, he realizes that at some point he could reach market saturation. As a result, he has diversified his product line a bit. JCF also hand-manufactures 500 preamp modules annually for PRS Guitars. Additionally, the company makes custom devices: one product for the home-studio market, and a preamp for audiophiles. But Florian says, "My heart is in making pro audio. The work we do is strong, and we believe in it. The people who have bought our products have been 100 percent satisfied. There is nothing more positive for a tool manufacturer than to hear that the person using the tool has never had a problem with it."
|"There is a Wild West feeling surrounding the rapid development of Web-based products for mobile devices.
"This company is positioned for growth over the next year," says David Iscove '98 enthusiastically. Decco Technologies, his startup Web development company, created a groundbreaking Web-based tool for mobile devices that helps museums and other tour-based destinations with concierge, navigation, ticketing, and membership services. The idea for the product came to Iscove when he was hired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) to restore the audio used in devices rented to museumgoers to enhance their visit.
"Museum visitors used to rent a Flash-based player and walk around the museum with headphones," Iscove says. "They would come to a particular piece of art and type in the stop number displayed next to the piece and get multimedia content pushed to them. It occurred to me that we could revamp the approach and let the visitors use their own smartphones instead. The number of people with smartphones has become huge, so we decided to find a way to piggyback off their hardware. Now the institution doesn't have to maintain any hardware for this, and visitors get an even better tour-based experience. We are the first up to the plate with a product like this in this field."
A distinguishing characteristic of Decco's product is that it's not an app for smartphones; instead, it uses the Web. "Currently, smartphone culture is very app based," Iscove says. "So we built a website designed for mobile devices that looks and functions like an app. The marketplace is exploding with apps. So with a mobile website that feels like an app to users, we provided a marketing hook. But more importantly, our back-end integration into LACMA's databases and the capability for ticketing and other services is much more robust operating through the Web than it would be if this was an app."
Before visitors even arrive at LACMA's campus, they can check remotely to see which special events are scheduled on a given day and the locations where they will be held. Visitors can also purchase paperless tickets to paid events remotely through a smartphone. The response from both museum administrators and the public has been enthusiastic.
Iscove got his start in technology and multimedia by working on music for films and video games. A guitar performance major at Berklee, Iscove returned to his native Los Angeles after his Berklee studies and began playing with a rising indie band called AllRise. He later started writing cues for film composer Paul Haslinger and composing video-game music. Most recently, he worked for three years for video-game developer Activision on its Guitar Hero and DJ Hero titles. "I was overseeing all audio integration for the franchise, he says. "Once a song was licensed, I worked with whoever owned the master of the songs. We would go to original multitrack recording and remix it to be compatible with the game in stem format. I got to work with some of the legendary musicians of our time."
Toward the end of his tenure with Activision, Iscove began thinking about other creative ways to use his technological skills when the opportunity to work on the LACMA project came up. His nascent company's idea for the Web-based tool for museum visitors was accepted and then funded by a county-based grant. "The grant required that we build our product with open source so that we could repurpose the software template for any other department under the jurisdiction of L.A. County with slight customization," Iscove says. "We got in at a great time. L.A. County doesn't have a provider for all of their mobile needs. Having done this successfully for one of the largest groups in the county, we have the attention of L.A. County as a whole."
Decco Technologies has three full-time partners and outsources its programming to a separate development team with six or seven programming consultants. Decco has also protected its product through copyright. Iscove says there is a Wild West feeling surrounding the rapid development of Web-based products for mobile devices.
"There is so much opportunity in the mobile space, and it's a fun place to be. We are trying new things that are getting the attention of the public. Since the advent of iPhone technology that allows the user to jump around to different places on the screen and zoom in with intuitive finger motions, smartphones have taken off. The support that that hardware lends to interactive experiences caused the explosion in the app market. With the basic mechanics in place and adoption by the public, the opportunities to provide entertainment via that platform are huge."
Regarding the future possibilities for Decco, Iscove says, "We hope to expand beyond L.A. County to other counties, and eventually to other commercial or nonprofit groups. Whether it's a mall, an amusement park, or any tour-based experience, customers can benefit from this interface. In the third quarter of this year, we hope for more expansion, but until then, there are enough opportunities within L.A. County to keep us busy. The eventual goal would be for us to integrate this even with music-based experiences for such things as a tour of the Grammy Museum."
|"I took the risk because these multimillion-dollar companies were not willing to step into the water to the tune of $40,000, and it created a whole business for me."
Pickups Pay Off
Larry Fishman '75 is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the others featured in this article. Thirty years ago, he started out much like the innovators profiled above did: as a musician with a good idea and the ability to make a working model at home. His company, Fishman Acoustic Amplification, has become a powerhouse manufacturing electronic pickup systems for all manner of acoustic instruments, from basses to ukuleles, and instrument amplifiers and signal processors, the majority of which are geared toward acoustic instruments.
In the Berklee today Fall 1992 issue, Fishman recalled founding his company after the pickups he made in his basement in 1981 for his acoustic bass started to catch on. (Click here for the full story.) The combination of a good idea and the willingness to look beyond his original idea and take a chance paid off a few years later.
"When we started supplying the Martin, Guild, and Gibson guitar companies with pickups, it was not clear what was going to happen in that market. [Japanese guitar maker] Takamine was delivering an acoustic guitar that could plug in and play at loud volume onstage with electronics that were as well integrated with the instrument. The American makers were just selling acoustic guitars then, and we were just selling pickups. The American companies wanted a whole system like Takamine was making so they could compete."
Together with a friend who was an industrial designer, Fishman formulated a design to fit with Martin, Guild, and Gibson guitars. When none of the companies was willing to put up the money to develop the system, Fishman took out a loan and paid the costs himself.
"We did the design work ourselves, and I paid for the tooling and production of the sample units," he says. "I took the risk because these multimillion-dollar companies were not willing to step into the water to the tune of $40,000, and it created a whole business for me. Rather than walking away thinking they were dummies and going back to making bass pickups, I felt there was a shot there."
When Fishman's new system wowed them, the risk paid off. His company quickly became the supplier of pickup systems for the three major American guitar companies and, later, others. "That was a turning point for us, because we had to start producing in volume. It got our manufacturing, organizational, planning, and scheduling skills up and got our financial house in order. One thing led to another, and we found that there was substantial business out there beyond the few products we had been making before."
Since then, Fishman has continued to grow as its product lines have multiplied. They also supply pickup systems to other equipment manufacturers. In 2009, Fishman relocated to a 38,000-square-foot plant in Andover, Massachusetts, with 62 employees on staff. The facility has a 3-D printer, a prototyping lab, a model shop, an in-house research and development team, mechanical and electronic engineers, product managers, and schedulers. Partnerships with manufacturing companies in the United States and in Asia enable Fishman to deliver innovative, high-quality products to superstars as well as lesser-known working musicians all over the world.
Even in last year's tough economic climate, Fishman experienced a 40 percent spike in sales according to Music Trades magazine. Their groundbreaking Aura technology is largely responsible for the bump. The Aura series foot pedals offer software-based audio imaging that approximates the sound of a high-end mic in a recording studio environment for use with acoustic-electric instruments onstage. As well, Fishman's Loudbox Mini acoustic instrument amplifiers and compact SA220 PA system (weighing only 25 pounds) contributed to a great bottom line in 2010.
In what Fishman describes as "a hard left turn," he recently partnered with a colleague who is developing noninvasive medical products with the same piezo polymer sensing material Fishman has used for pickups. Fishman was tapped for his expertise in sensors, acoustics, and digital signal processing to help create a device that "listens" and responds to the sounds produced by the human body. In consultation with a doctor at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Fishman and his associates are testing an anti-snoring device consisting of a pillow and shoulder mat with a sensing system and inflatable air chambers. Sensors detect the position of the head and the sound of snoring and automatically adjust the sleeper's position to open up the air passage in the throat and curtail snoring.
"Chronic snoring can lead to sleep apnea which can be life-threatening," Fishman says. "We felt that if we could find a way to stop snoring, we could help people avoid developing sleep apnea. We have major interest from the medical products industry. This is a new market for us and it's huge. It's not music, but it utilizes all the stuff that we've learned by making musical products."
Thus far Fishman holds 34 patents and has others pending. His educational background in mechanical engineering and music enabled him to develop successful music-related products. But he had to learn business principles on the job. "My intuition seemed to bring me in the right direction," he says. "We've had 30 years to get it right; we finally know all the tunes, so to speak."
To young people with creative ideas Fishman says, "Figure out if you want to run a business or license your idea to create a revenue stream while you continue to do other things-like play music. They are two different tracks. Once you become a small business, you have to commit to it 24/7. If you don't look at it that way, you won't succeed. Decide what your goals are with respect to your lifestyle and career ambitions. Running a business was a good mix for me. I played pretty steadily when my business was growing. When I became too busy to be an active player, I still surrounded myself with musicians: my customers. Now, just watching the whole machine work is a lot of fun."