How's this for a different twist in the music business: Ben Verellen was a musician who thought he could build a better amplifier than the ones in the marketplace. And so, he did! Verellen amps are gaining in popularity around the world. Ben Verellen talked with us about how he did it.
Q - Ben, how are you getting the word out about your amps? Do you have reps calling on music stores across the country?
A - No. It's been really strange. When I was still in school I started building amps for projects at school. Then I sold one to a buddy who told his buddy and some of those guys waned me to build them something. So it started out building amps for "cost of parts" sort of thing. They tell their friends and eventually it kind of grew into what it is now. So it's been a complete word of mouth. We have
a website (www.VerellenAmplifiers.com) and that helps. Very little to no marketing effort. (laughs)
Q - Did it take a lot of money to launch Verellen amplifiers?
A - Actually, I have a pretty bad gauge for what a lot of money to start a business is. We started with about $60,000 of money invested, which seemed like a roll of money to me. Some people say that's nothing and sure enough we burned through that in a couple of months, and struggled in the three or four years since. Last year things finally started to turn up and get a little bit better. We really just talked to a handful of buddies that play in bands and maybe their customers or I know from a music venue or another who really just believe in the idea. So it's not the same from having a loan from a bank, which I suppose can be a nice thing. You're dealing with your friends and it can be complicated that way. I'm lucky that all my buddies who invested are very patient and supportive. It's kind of a unique thing. When things we should've expected didn't go as well as the original plan thought out, the recession hit a month after we moved into our shop. It was kind of a freak-out moment, but it turned out everybody had my back. And they're still really happy with what's goin' on in the business.
Q - How can you compete with someone like Fender or Ampeg or Marshall? Every amp that you make is custom made, correct?
A - Almost every amp is unique and custom made. There are a few standard models.
Q - If every amp is custom made, that means it would be more expensive than if you bought a Fender or Marshall, correct?
A - You're right. One way to think about it, and it's a generalization, but there's two kinds of major sub-categories of amp makers. You've got on one side your Fenders, all those big companies that have stuff in the big guitar centers, the big chains and they're cranking out amps. And then on the other side of the spectrum you've got the real low production, boutique companies. Victoria Amplifiers could be one of those. Dr. Z might be one. Most of these companies sell amplifiers for a really, really insane large amount of money, especially compared to what the cost of parts is, whereas Fender and these other companies are having things made overseas for next to nothing. You can't compete with Fender on price. You can't compete with them on distribution. But what you can do is offer something that's better quality that's customized, which nobody else is doing. You can put that in a price point that's less than super boutique amps, but more than the overseas made, mass produced stuff. I think there's a place for that. I think there's a place for people who want something that's unique and you're the only person who has it. If they can manage to do it without breaking the bank, it maybe a college age kid who's playing in a touring band, that's kind of what we're going for.
Q - How long does it take you to make one of those amps once an order comes in?
A - It depends on how complicated it is and how much it strays I guess from a typical product. We have these chassis manufactured that are, you could call them modular, meaning that they have several holes punched out of them and can be used or not used depending on what the custom product calls for. So some projects I can see really easily how that fits into the custom chassis. Some other projects, the guy may want special dimensions, which means we have to make a custom chassis. So that takes a bit longer and costs a bit more. There's just a big range.
Q - How many employees do you have in your company?
A - There's actually no employees in the company. There's myself doing the circuitry and the business side of things and my business partner Mike does all the woodwork. Then we have one independent contractor who comes in to help when we get real busy.
Q - Do you have a busy season?
A - We've only been at it for four years, so it's really hard to see a pattern. It seems like things tend to slow down in the Summer time. It's so sporadic for us. One sale is a real big deal for us. We get like five sales in a month, it could be a fluke or it could be a trend. I think we need a few more years to really know what we're looking at in terms of how things change from season to season.
Q - You actually ship your amps overseas, don't you?
A - Yup. Absolutely.
Q - What happens if an overseas customer isn't happy with one of your amps? Maybe they don't like the sound of the amp. How do you fix it when you're so far away?
A - That's definitely a big risk and one that I've been astonished at how many people far away have taken that risk. A lot of them are depending on the video clips and the sound clips they've seen on the internet and photographs. And if they order a very customized thing, which is less common, typically overseas customers buy one of our standard products. But if they order a custom and they decide this isn't exactly what I wanted, the best thing we an do is offer a really detailed schematic and parts list and drawings and we can help them deal with the issue where they're at. If that's not the case, then we have a warranty policy where any customer can ship their product back to us. We'll go back through it and pay shipping back to them. So it's a risk, but it's a risk we share with the customer.
Q - I don't know how old you are.
A - I'll be 32 in April. (2012)
Q - Since you're based in Seattle (Washington), you're probably too young to remember the whole Grunge scene, aren't you?
A - I was there as a 13-year-old kid, trying to sneak into shows. My older brother was more into it than I was, but I got to tag along. So, it was just before my time actually, but definitely an inspiring factor.
Q - Did you ever see Kurt Cobain walking down the street?
A - No. I never met him. I know a lot of people that knew him or met him. There's a couple of degrees of separation. He passed on when I was 14 years old.
Q - You sold an amp to one of the guys in The Foo Fighters?
A - That's right.
Q - Are you able to name any other celebrities who use your product?
A - The deal with Nate was, he's endorsed another by another amplifier company, so with The Foo Fighters, he uses their products. He was doing a tour with his own band, Funny Day Real Estate, and so that's why he was able to use his Verellen amp for that. I don't know how much use it gets back home in the studio, but there are other celebrities. I wouldn't say celebrities as much as maybe medium popularity Rock bands, which is just the brunt of our customer base. It's the bands that tour in small to medium size clubs like The Sword, Blonde Redhead. These are the kind of bands that rarely reach the underground if you want to think about it.
Q - It's kind of hard to tour without record company support, isn't it?
A - The bands I know are living off of their shows. The only way to do it is to be on tour most of the year. It's expensive and they're not making much money doing it either. If they're trying to do a band and trying to make a living, touring seems to be the way to do it.
Q - Are you open to the idea of branching out in your business and coming out with a line of guitars?
A - Absolutely. I definitely want to do different things. There's lots of things I want to do. It could be anything. I'm mostly into music and I always want to be involved in that. I definitely don't think it ends with bass amps and guitar amps.