Rootbeer Audio creates tube amplifiers with a unique aesthetic using the highest quality components and techniques available. An alumnus (MAT, 2011) and on the faculty at UArts, Matthew Manhire used Corzo funding to transition his original business as a repair service to designing and producing high end boutique guitar amps. This entailed both designing and producing a model amplifier (the Philly 20 watt), developing a sustainable supply chain, incorporating as an LLC, creating a marketing plan, attending a tradeshow, and beginning a social media and retail sales campaign.
After being awarded the grant, Matt experimented with different styles of amp circuits and components until he finished what became known as the Philly 20 watt amplifier. Many prototypes and revisions were made until the amp not only sounded the way he wanted, but also was quiet and reliable enough to be replicated. The next step was to find a sustainable and reliable supply chain. This included finding a cabinet maker and a metal shop to make the wood cabinet/housing and form the metal chassis that holds the amplifier. After this stage, the focus shifted to the creation of a marketing plan and generating promotional content.
Goals and Lessons
Design amp(s): While the original intent was to design and market both a guitar amp and a bass amp, it turned out to be too much at one time. For this reason, Matt decided to focus on the guitar amp design. With the aid of the incubator grant, he was able to experiment with the highest quality transformers, the main ingredient in a tube amplifier, and speakers possible. After deciding on the components, Matt drafted a schematic and began sketching out a custom cabinet design. The cabinet and aesthetic was inspired by guitar amps made in NJ in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Find a sustainable supply chain: This turned out to be harder and more time-consuming than Matt imagined. While he could potentially drill and punch the metal chassis to his specifications, he decided it was more cost efficient to have that outsourced. Finding a metal shop that would work with small quantities was difficult. Eventually, a small shop was contracted. Matt needed a cabinet maker to make the wood box and speaker baffle for the amp. After finding a suitable cabinet maker and drafting all of the dimensions, the craftsman was unable to deliver due to a job change. Matt found another cabinet maker that took almost six months to deliver one prototype. Matt received the first cabinet days before showing the amp at Summer NAMM. A new cabinet maker has been contracted. The pricing is higher and the work and turnaround time is far superior.
Incorporate into an LLC: Rootbeer Audio was run as a sole proprietorship until 2017 when it was incorporated into a sole-member LLC.
Create a marketing plan consisting of the following components
- Social media: Matt began scheduling Instagram and Facebook posts each day based on when followers were most likely to see the content. He experimented with Facebook ads to see what would work with potential demographic audiences. Through increased and more focused posts, there was an average increase of 33% likes per post.
- Email newsletter: Throughout the grant cycle, Matt increased the Rootbeer Audio email list by 25%. The first two emails were drafted and sketched out to include the initial release, special offers, a video demo, and story video.
- SEO and website improvements: After redesigning the website to cater towards amplifier manufacturing/building rather than repairs, Matt increased traffic through SEO.
- Retailer sales: Due to an increase in the price to produce the amplifiers, Matt decided to try direct sales for the first few units. Customers can purchase an amp from either the Rootbeer Audio website or Reverb.
Attend a large tradeshow: In July of 2017, Matt attended summer NAMM in Nashville. He lent an amp to a reputable pedal company to use at their booth. It turned out to be a great experience. Aside from meeting many people, it created interest and increased Rootbeer Audio’s social media reach.
Professional photos and video content of amp: After having the amp photographed, Matt set up a demo video shoot with a local guitarist and UArts grad, Anthony DeCarlo, which showcased the amp’s unique cosmetics and sound. Throughout the grant and amp design process, Matt had a videographer filming in my workshop. This material was later used in conjunction with an informal interview to produce a short promotional video.
Skills learned: At the beginning of the grant disbursement, Matt took an Adobe Illustrator class so that he could digitally design my own chassis, cabinets, and faceplates for the amplifiers. This proved to be helpful in both limiting graphic design costs, contracted costs, and turnaround time. It also allowed him to have complete control rather than having to use a third party to turn my expressed design goals into reality. Matt increased my Eagle schematic software skills which aided in the drawing and subsequent revisions.
Overall Lessons Learned
Account for delays in contractors and yourself: Almost nothing happened when it was supposed to. While better planning can help this, always plan for delays. Many delays snowballed and subsequently delayed other time-sensitive goals such as artist interest, endorsements, trade shows, and pricing used in marketing materials and promotions.
Keep it small: It can be tempting to utilize price-breaks for larger quantities, but until you are certain your prototype is finished you want to spend the least amount of money and take the least risk as possible. Even if that means paying 30% more for just one item, you do not need to build up a stock of useless parts and project-specific components.
Repeatability and sustainability: While making custom art/products is thrilling, it is often not the best model for larger sales volume. Ensure your design or product can be repeated and that the outcome is the same as the unit before it. It is hard to scale up. Contract processes if it is all in your head.
Marketing, marketing, marketing: “You may have the sharpest axe, but if you can’t find the woods….”. - Neil Kleinman, Director, Corzo Center. The point is, you may have the best product, but marketing is the most important aspect. This does not mean you should skimp on the product prototype stage, but rather accept that you will never be 100% happy with your product. You will always be able to improve it later. To end on another Corzo quote: “Fix it while you fly it.”
- Send an email releasing both the Philly 20 watt and 40 watt amplifier models. At first, Matt will use a direct sales method from the Rootbeer Audio website and through Reverb. This first email will contain a video demo of the amp and a short promotional video.
- Within the year, get a premier guitar review.
- Organize the smaller aspects of the design into sub-assemblies that could be built by a future intern or paid tech in training.
- Complete the design of a bass amp.
- Find a more affordable option for the wooden cabinets.