The idea for Fret Zealot was VERY gradual. Five years in the making in fact. The original idea was first prototyped all the way back in 2012, but the price of the paper-thin LEDs we use was nearly $1 each. With 90 LEDs, that cost alone wouldn’t let us produce the product. Then in December of 2017 the price dropped by over 60%, so we jumped on it and made this dream a reality!
Our first customers came from Kickstarter. We’ve launched every product on Kickstarter prior to delivering. So far we’ve always been successful and done it for the guitar, bass, and ukulele versions of Fret Zealot. Kickstarter gave us amazing market validation and target markets all around the world.
I’m what we classify as a “tab rocker”. I have no formal education in guitar (although some in music theory for wind and brass instruments). My background is in engineering, which is what was truly needed for Fret Zealot to become a reality. To date we’ve only raised money from angel investors and friends/family rounds.
Who is your target demographic?
Our primary demographic is men (over the age of 25) and definitely not by our choosing. An interesting note is that we have extreme difficulty even getting a female instructor to respond to outreach for our course marketplace. We’re not entirely sure why at this time, but there are definitely many fewer female guitar instructors for sure.
One of the fun things about launching products on Kickstarter is you get a lot of customer requests and feedback. We’ve had some very unusual/uncommon instrument requests such as an 8 string multi-scale guitar version, 7 string bass (most bass are 4 or 5 string). We often get customers requesting extremely fast songs (think Thunderstruck by AC/DC) as a joke and they’re surprised when we actually have it and can display it flawlessly on Fret Zealot.
What happened in the early stages?
Kickstarter and family/friends investment provided our financial start. None of the founding team comes from money, so this has certainly been a bootstrapped entrepreneurial adventure. My partners were brought in on a needed basis. One had expertise in low level electronics design and the other is a pro at high-level server / backend infrastructure. I myself have a background in mechanical engineering, so I had our manufacturing on lockdown. Together the three of us made a killer team for creating a genuinely novel product from the ground up.
First employees must be incredibly cross-functional. Whatever you hire them for, recognize that they may end up doing that job only about 20% of the time. No early employee has the luxury of only one role. To date, I’ve never looked at a resume- I look at what projects they’ve completed end-to-end. I’ve hired too many part-time or consulting workers who just give up at 95%. It was frustrating for a while (the graphic design industry in particular has this problem).
Did you run any companies prior?
I haven’t run any companies prior to this, but there were other product experiments. Thankfully those were simply early lessons learned and we were able to pivot to the Fret Zealot product and platform without starting over. I’ve always been an inventor. There are two types: hobbyists and businesspeople. I’m the latter. I never had any interest in hobby projects, only commercially viable products. I kept a book of hundreds of ideas. Finally one arose with a business plan that made sense! A necessary convergence was the popularity of Kickstarter, which allowed me to get quick traction.
I actually had zero entrepreneurial friends when I started, so that was yet another area I had to start from scratch. It goes without much elaboration that all my friends and family thought I was pretty crazy to try and “make it on my own.” An interesting downside to that is that there isn’t much support when there are real business stresses. Just because the Kickstarter campaign was successful doesn’t mean I’m all of a sudden rich (very much the opposite both historically and currently), so it’s a lonely path sometimes.
What motivates you when things go wrong? What is the end goal?
Customer feedback is the biggest motivator. No matter how hard things get, nothing beats a customer telling you your product is amazing and thanking you for working so hard to make it happen. It does take years, especially selling direct to customers, to get used to some of the more difficult customer interactions. Our customer service team has to undergo very specialized training on how to communicate with challenging customers.
The end goal of the Fret Zealot platform is to reduce the number of new players who give up. Currently it stands as high as 90%. Just a 10% reduction in that will DOUBLE the industry!
Just starting out now is tough. The “golden age” of crowdfunding is very much over. It hurts a bit to say this, but for someone starting now I’d have to recommend choosing a product category where a subscription is part of it from Day 1 rather than relying on product sales growing into sustainability.
Facebook is #1 for driving sales while Instagram is #1 for brand visibility. Twitter is all but useless from all standpoints. Email (e.g. newletters) is still the most effective way to garner interest, sharing, and engagement in the long run.
Current events aside (i.e. COVID-19), our largest barrier to growth is funds for marketing. When someone sees Fret Zealot in action, their minds are truly blown, so it’s not even a matter of competition- it’s simply awareness. Thankfully this is a solvable problem!
How do you protect yourself from competition?
We utilize several forms of IP protection. The first line of defense is of course our patents and trademarks, but those are only defensive in our minds (meaning we don’t prosecute- only defend). After that is “data siloing”. We have custom firmware or software controlling our LEDs, Bluetooth, and then apps, so there are multiple levels of protection and control. If one level was brute-force copied, it can’t control the other levels without us noticing and changing things.
What are the top 3-5 apps your business could not run without?
We use a few high-level apps that are critical to every day business operations:
Pipedrive - CRM / sales. Infinitely better, cheaper, and more effective than Salesforce.
Slack - global communication. We currently have about 20 people talking at various times around the world.
Google Drive / Suite - seamlessly effective and fast on all devices.
Boomerang - this is more just for me, but I “boomerang” nearly every email I send. It’s kind of a “send it and rest assured it won’t be forgotten” insurance. I can’t say how many reminder emails I send people that I 100% never would have remembered in any other way on my own.
Zendesk - essential for any effective customer service interactions
What are your favourite books and podcasts?
In general I’m much more of a “blog of opportunity” kind of person and find very specific advice for our rather specific business needs, but there are a couple books that stand out to me as having been useful:
This is Marketing by Seth Godin
Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey A. Moore
The Lean Startup by Eric Ries
Shopify podcast (I read the transcript)
Revisionist History (Malcolm Gladwell) - some shockingly stark business epiphanies have come from these fascinating commentaries on historical events and the real reasons behind them
What are your next steps for Fret Zealot?
Our focus now is almost entirely on scaling our Course Marketplace. Fret Zealot is all about choice (we coin the product as “the ultimate tool for learning guitar”) and we want to give customers their choice of what they feel is the best instruction because best is subjective. New courses are being released every two weeks or so.
In 5 years, I want people who are going to try and learn an instrument to say “am I going to find a teacher or am I going to use Fret Zealot”? There will be new instrument categories, but most importantly Fret Zealot will become a known brand and premier tool for learning instruments. It’s not a question of “if”, but when. We love to partner with smaller music schools and teachers to help remote music education become more effective and modern.
In our best month, we sold 1,500 Fret Zealots. We’re hoping to surpass that soon. We are open to selling if the partner we can sell to would be able to increase our marketing resources. We’re in this for the long game and want to make a change in an industry (music education) that hasn’t seen any developments changing retention rates since the VCR was invented.